It occurred to me today that there are quite a few things that we, as human beings, are naturally inclined to do on SO but really "ought" not to for the sake of the site. They're the kind of things that we rely on the documentation, the culture, personal discipline, the incentive systems, user feedback and in some cases moderator action to keep our "basic tendencies" in check.

For most of these things, the system "works", but for some, human nature is collectively getting the better of us. By identifying those things in one place, perhaps we'll be better positioned to address them.

(Note: I realize there are some SO behaviors that are "controversial" in the sense that there is no consensus that they are "bad". I think listing them here is ok, since it's still helpful to be aware of the human tendency.)

Update #1: Not sure if this will sufficiently address the concerns of the "primarily-opinion based" close voters, but answers should point to metrics where possible (e.g. slope of close vote review queue size).

Update #2: For those of you who consider MSO as an extension of SO, this question is about SO exclusive of MSO.

  • 13
    Closevoting and downvoting too quickly should definitely be on the list - the conviction that there is garbage that needs to be burninated (which I subscribe to wholeheartedly) is something to watch closely, lest it get out of control. So should comments that are understandable in light of thousands of crappy questions every day, but make the community look like jerks to the individual user being scolded and everyone else driving by. All this has been discussed at length though, so I'm not sure whether and how this question can contribute something new – Pekka Nov 21 '13 at 16:23
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    @probablyPekka "thousands of crappy questions every day" should probably make the list too. – Bill the Lizard Nov 21 '13 at 16:25
  • 5
    @Bill yeah. That's not a community behaviour though IMO. That's a force of nature. :) – Pekka Nov 21 '13 at 16:27
  • 3
    I think the idea of this post is to identify which of these issues is actually pressing, and which are mostly doing okay, so that we can focus resources. Seems pretty painfully subjective, though - even more subjective than most things on Meta. "Which of these things that you may disagree about individually is the most important" sounds like it's unlikely to garner a whole lot of actionable data. – Ben Barden Nov 21 '13 at 16:28
  • @probablyPekka - Maybe adding a review queue for flagged comments would help. "Comment reflects a view that may be appropriate in the eyes of experienced users, but may appear dismissive, aggressive, or otherwise off-putting to new or inexperienced users." – Andrew Cheong Nov 21 '13 at 16:28
  • 10
    While I appreciate the intention here, how is this not a "fling my personal gripe at a wall and see if it sticks" kind of deal? I fear this might end up in a wall of rants. – Bart Nov 21 '13 at 16:29
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    Rep whoring. Because, you guys, I just hit the 200k mark. – BoltClock's a Unicorn Nov 21 '13 at 16:36
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    The obsessive naval gazing – Oded Nov 21 '13 at 16:38
  • @probablyPekka - "Closevoting and downvoting too quickly should definitely be on the list"... this is a direct result of the close vote review queue. It isn't a behavior, it is status-bydesign. – Travis J Nov 21 '13 at 16:42
  • 3
    This question appears to be off-topic because it specifically asks for a list; the human tendency to create lists being one of the behaviors SO is actually beating. – ben is uǝq backwards Nov 21 '13 at 16:52
  • You know you can't down-vote from /review/close, right @Travis? But yeah, quick-closing is absolutely a design goal there - doesn't mean it's always happening to the right questions though. – Shog9 Nov 21 '13 at 16:55
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    @Oded “Naval gazing”, you mean boat programming? – Gilles 'SO- stop being evil' Nov 21 '13 at 17:03
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    @Gilles - watching someone programming on a boat. Akin to watching paint dry. – Oded Nov 21 '13 at 17:05
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    @Shog9 - Most of the questions getting closed quickly probably deserve it. As a result, most of the time people who are inclined to downvote can easily just one click to the question and downvote. After all, some people have cast thousands if not tens of thousands of downvotes. Problem is that at times, they may not notice that the one close vote on the question was inaccurate because that would take too much effort (after all, the question is in a state a flux in the first hour). Assume the post will never change, agree with close vote present, downvote. Probably happens pretty often. – Travis J Nov 21 '13 at 17:15
  • 5
    @Doug_Ivison: SORRY, I CAN'T HEAR YOU OVER MY GLORIOUS REPUTATION. – BoltClock's a Unicorn Nov 22 '13 at 3:08

11 Answers 11

  1. Unhelpful commentary
  2. Lazy, poorly-asked questions
  3. Omphaloskepsis
  • 31
    "Unhelpful commentary" Nonsense. – BoltClock's a Unicorn Nov 21 '13 at 16:44
  • I think we need to take a long hard look at what these comments reveal about how Stack Exchange really works. – dmckee --- ex-moderator kitten Nov 21 '13 at 16:48
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    "Unhelpful commentary" At least we're not YouTube. – Bill the Lizard Nov 21 '13 at 16:50
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    4. .... 5. Profit – Bart Nov 21 '13 at 16:51
  • 8
    Fix number two and the other two fix themselves automatically. – user102937 Nov 21 '13 at 17:54
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    +1 we really oughta stop those comments that just rebate the same point already made in the answer. Especially the ones starting with +1! – Sklivvz Nov 21 '13 at 18:12
  • @Shog9 I haven't see a lot of navel-gazing (if I understand what you mean) on SO. Can you point to an example? – Peter Alfvin Nov 21 '13 at 18:24
  • This post is an example, @Peter. Many meta post fall into that category. Navel-gazing is very meta. – Shog9 Nov 21 '13 at 18:28
  • @Shog9 My question was about SO, not MSO. Can you give an SO example? Also, do you interpret SO as a shorthand for "SO and/or MSO" in MSO questions? – Peter Alfvin Nov 21 '13 at 18:32
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    A style of unhelpful commentary that is a pet peeve of mine is when there are three or four comments in a row that all basically say the same thing "Show your codes" "Show code or you won't get answers" "Where is your code???" - the OP gets it, they'll either add it or they won't. (I wonder if it would be helpful to block posting of comments that are sufficiently similar to previous comments on the same post - that is, if it's really a problem. Could just be me that doesn't like that) – Josh Darnell Nov 22 '13 at 0:03
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    @jadarnel27 So your concern here is offending the OP, right? I'm not disagreeing, I'm just clarifying. I was frankly surprised by "unhelpful commentary" being so high on folks' answers here, so I'm trying to distinguish between concern about "hurtful/offensive" comments and comments that are just "noisy" relative to the OP's question. – Peter Alfvin Nov 22 '13 at 1:06
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    The OP is at best a secondary consideration, @Peter. These posts sit around for months - years - and get viewed by dozens, hundreds, even thousands of people who aren't the OP. Having a pile of stupid comments sitting there is like having neighbors who conduct all of their marital arguments at full volume in the front yard - it's just embarrassing for everyone. – Shog9 Nov 22 '13 at 1:08
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    So, have the courage of your stated convictions, and make comments age away. – Rosinante Nov 22 '13 at 2:03
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    We're tryin', @Ros - turns out some people have feelings about that. Expect some tests in the near future. – Shog9 Nov 22 '13 at 2:05
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    @jadarnel27 What bothers me most about those comments is that they often use not one but multiple question marks. – Stijn Nov 27 '13 at 8:50

Firstly, the non constructive commentary. If your comment isn't going to improve the post, don't post it. Stack Overflow is not Reddit; "OP is a fag"-type comments won't roll here. Yes, the comments we get here aren't that bad, but they're still bad.

Secondly, the ignoring of rules. I see a lot of high reps posting link-only answers. A more troubling behavior is answering questions that really should be closed. This behavior reinforces the "dump your code on SO and your problem will be solved" mentality that's out there.

If you have been here for long enough, you should know better than to answer obviously closeworthy posts.

Besides this, I have a suspicion that many >3ks don't even know which posts are closeworthy. It's fine if one doesn't want to take active part in the moderation, but this is worse.

  • 7
    I roll my eyes at the whole "answering questions that should be closed" argument; if you're answering and voting to close, that's shady, but otherwise you're kinda just disputing the idea that it's necessary to close. – Shog9 Nov 21 '13 at 16:53
  • @Shog9 Disputing should be done on meta, really. Also (though I've not mentioned it in the post, will edit), I think there are quite a few people who aren't disputing the closure, they just don't know what is and isn't closeworthy. – Manishearth Nov 21 '13 at 16:55
  • Well, that's a different problem. – Shog9 Nov 21 '13 at 17:03
  • Is the first concern primarily with offensive comments or do you also see a significant issue with "social" comments? – Peter Alfvin Nov 21 '13 at 18:20
  • @PeterAlfvin Not so much, those should be deleted but they make the site feel more like a community. Offensive comments and other comments that serve to annoy/hurt rather than help – Manishearth Nov 21 '13 at 18:25
  • 1
    It does get disheartening when you see a high-rep user acting irresponsibly; I've seen a >5ker or two who very much looked like the "I'm going to just dump this on SO"-type user, and a couple of >4kers who had a habit of posting poorly formatted questions to boot. – Dennis Meng Nov 21 '13 at 19:52

How about random, petty down-votes to "get even" with someone who pointed out a flaw in your answer or begged you for enough information in your question to make it answerable?

I've received a couple today, including one on this nearly 5-year-old answer. I must have really put off some immature person who thinks 2 rep points is going to make me feel sorry for trying to make the site better.

Since I feel that most of my peers have long since realized how futile it is to down-vote people for revenge, I suspect these are more angry childish n00bs than high-rep users, but hopefully they find their way here too.

Over time, I have reduced or eliminated some behaviors that seemed to contribute to more frequent revenge-style occurrences of this (and I say that because (1) the frequency really went down immediately and (2) I don't think it's that my answers have gotten better). One of the main ones: explaining down-votes. Now I typically don't bother, and that's a shame.

I don't care about the rep, but the time I've spent trying to analyze whether there is a legitimate problem with my answer or it's just a random drive-by sour grapes down-vote that I can ignore has gone down as well. But it still drives me crazy trying to figure it out when it does happen - and all that will lead me to is contributing less in other ways, period. Again, that's a shame.

I think the main problem is that we put a very high level of emphasis on reputation when really, at the end of the day, the general thresholds are important to enable privileges, but - in the real world - 2 or 200 or 2000 rep points don't mean jack. None of it means jack. Particularly trying to chip 2 or 4 rep points away from a 100K user. Seriously? If a potential employer is looking for your SO rep on your resume (and cares if it's 5K or 10K or 50K), I don't know what to tell you. Knowing you're a contributor, period, should tell them enough about you. I know some pretty high-rep users who I wouldn't hire if they were the last person on earth, and I know others with low rep that are valued contributors but give away all their rep in bounties, or contribute in non-accelerated-rep-accruing activities, etc.

  • For what it's worth, when I've flagged this kind of obvious behavior to moderators, I think they've acted on it, although I can't recall how I concluded that. – Peter Alfvin Nov 21 '13 at 22:11
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    @Peter when it's onesy-twosy, they're not going to do anything about it. When it's more than that, there's an automated system that deals with it. The problem isn't the behavior itself and trying to stop individual instances of it; it's simply the way the system is designed and the areas we place the most emphasis on. – Aaron Bertrand Nov 21 '13 at 22:13
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    You've gone in a circle. 2 points is meaningless. So the behavior of the occasional yoik trying to pull your chain with them should be completely ineffectual, so why worry over it? – Rosinante Nov 22 '13 at 2:01
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    @Rosinante I'm sorry you don't comprehend my stance. shrug The 2 points is meaningless but I sure would like to know when someone found a fault in my answer vs. being a vengeful something-or-other. Just because there's nothing I can do about it in the current system doesn't mean I have to enjoy it. – Aaron Bertrand Nov 22 '13 at 5:46
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    You know what annoys me most about issues like this though? The fact that everyone assumes it's about the rep, all the time. I wish we didn't have to say "I don't care about the rep". – BoltClock's a Unicorn Nov 22 '13 at 7:08
  • In a giant crowd-sourced system, lots of inexplicable things will happen. – Rosinante Nov 22 '13 at 12:14
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    @Rosinante so don't even mention the things about the system that bother you, because they can all be non-explained away? Sorry, but if doing so changes one person's behavior, it was worth it. YMMV. – Aaron Bertrand Nov 22 '13 at 15:05
  • Downvote may mean that's completely other answer as someone would expect here. For example, someone expected some code, and gets some philosophical remarks. So always assuming every downvote is revenge isn't a good way to go. – Danubian Sailor Nov 27 '13 at 8:39
  • 1
    @ŁukaszL. sorry, when did I say I assumed "every downvote is revenge"? – Aaron Bertrand Nov 27 '13 at 19:28
  1. Asking and leaving as is poorly formed questions
  2. Answering duplicate questions vs. searching for and V(ing)TC as duplicate
  3. Downvoting poorly formed questions vs. commenting and/or V(ing)TC
  4. Answering questions in comments (only)

All of these are "understandable" and arguably based of the traits of a great programmer (i.e. laziness, impatience, hubris). I think our challenge is making the "right thing" more attractive and/or the "wrong thing" more repellent.

In some cases this can be done with (dis)incentives, but in other cases it may involve substantively changing how the system works.

In all cases, I think it requires us to focus on what users are experiencing on the site and stop thinking that we can just "encourage" people towards different behavior (e.g. spending more time casting/reviewing close votes).

I didn't list "non-constructive comments" because while I've seen/experienced that behavior in spades on MSO, it seems like it's relatively "in check" on SO, perhaps because I'm not "hanging out" in the tags where this is more of a problem.


Overly broad list style questions in which everyone is encouraged to provide their own opinions about some problem without ever having a conclusive answer.

  • 1
    Do you see this is a serious SO issue (as opposed to MSO)? – Peter Alfvin Nov 21 '13 at 22:12
  • 2
    I don't see this as a real problem on SO (or my site, dba.SE). We tend to close these questions pretty aggressively. You can't prevent new users from wanting to do this, but the behavior is thwarted pretty quickly. – Aaron Bertrand Nov 21 '13 at 22:13
  • @PeterAlfvin I freely admit this answer is primarily meant to reference this question, which is why I voted to close it in the first place. It is of course a valid problem, one in which does continue to crop up, but I don't know if its one of the most pressing issues, just the one that reading this question happens to make me most annoyed about at this particular instant in time. – Servy Nov 21 '13 at 22:15
  • 1
    @Servy I have no problem with you referencing the question if the question was an instance of what I was asking about. But did you really think MSO was within the scope of the question? Or do you really think this is a serious issue on SO? – Peter Alfvin Nov 21 '13 at 22:18
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    @PeterAlfvin The question is clearly scoped to SO, I'm not saying otherwise, I just said that seeing this question, which seem to be to be way, way, way too broad to be constructive or helpful, made this particular (real, valid) concern the one on the top of my head. – Servy Nov 21 '13 at 22:22
  • 1
    No problem. I just personally haven't seen this phenomenon on SO to any extent, that's all, so I wanted to make sure you felt we were "losing the battle" against it and that it belonged in the "most" category from your perspective. That's why I asked @Shog9 for an example. On the rare cases I've seen questions like these on SO, they've been closed or withdrawn pretty quickly. – Peter Alfvin Nov 21 '13 at 22:32
  • 1
    I'd say this used to be a major problem, and we have if not won the battle then at least turned the tide. – Gilles 'SO- stop being evil' Nov 21 '13 at 23:18

We're not doing nearly enough of what is in this link.

  • 3
    We're not clamping down hard enough on people using filler text to get around content filters ;p – Richard Tingle Nov 21 '13 at 16:58
  • That comment thing happens on SO too. I'm puzzled why it only acts on internal links and not externals. – BoltClock's a Unicorn Nov 21 '13 at 16:58
  • @RichardTingle I'd say that's a second object lesson, except I think we are dealing harshly enough with people who work around content filters. – Gilles 'SO- stop being evil' Nov 21 '13 at 17:00
  • @BoltClock'saUnicorn Oh, right, that was it, not being on meta but the fact that it's an internal link. I should have used a link shortener. – Gilles 'SO- stop being evil' Nov 21 '13 at 17:01
  • 1
    Plus, filler text, what filler text? (@RichardTingle :p) (Or: how to abuse the 5-minute window — maybe we should be doing more against that, but I don't know how, short of removing it.) – Gilles 'SO- stop being evil' Nov 21 '13 at 17:02
  • 1
    I'm downvoting because your answer contradicts Shog9's answer, and I agree with his answer. As a moderator, I'd be a little peeved if people just flagged link only answers without explaining the problem, or attempting to engage, or even editing the good parts into the answer. If link only answers are truly problem per se, then we can always ask the Dev team to build a validation algorithm that checks for that stuff. – George Stocker Nov 21 '13 at 17:08
  • Funny enough, Tim came up with an idea for addressing that just the other day, @Gilles. Of course, it would entail some pretty major changes to the whole editing pipeline, but there are one or two other bugs in that beast that could use some love anyway. – Shog9 Nov 21 '13 at 17:09
  • 1
    @GeorgeStocker There is no way to detect link-only answers automatically. It's a matter of meaning, not syntax. – Gilles 'SO- stop being evil' Nov 21 '13 at 17:32
  • @Gilles I think we have a different definition of "Link only". – George Stocker Nov 21 '13 at 17:37
  • 1
    Should I edit this answer to add some context to the otherwise bare link? :P – James Webster Nov 21 '13 at 17:39
  • @GeorgeStocker “Link-only” = if you print the answer out (and thus can't click on the link), it doesn't contain any information. – Gilles 'SO- stop being evil' Nov 21 '13 at 17:40
  • I really wanted to flag this as VLQ. I managed to hold back though. It's still tempting. – Servy Nov 21 '13 at 17:45
  • 1
    @AaronBertrand Your comment is off-topic. I'm not complaining about moderators declining flags that aren't precise enough, that's fine. I'm complaining about a lack of policy that answers which have been clearly identified as lacking content should be deleted, no matter what their score is or whether it would theoretically be possible to quote the content behind the link or whatnot. – Gilles 'SO- stop being evil' Nov 21 '13 at 22:54
  • 1
    @AaronBertrand Again: the problem is that many users, including many moderators, consider that “Yes, this is clearly a link-only answer [or whatever you like to call it], and the only way to get anything out of it is to follow the link and try to figure out what may be applicable. So what? Downvote it if you don't like it, but it should not be deleted.” It isn't a matter of differing judgement calls but differing policies. – Gilles 'SO- stop being evil' Nov 21 '13 at 23:05
  • 1
    @Shog9 Right, or this which was originally admittedly poor (no expanation), but not deletion-worthy (because it did state what the abbreviation stands for, which was the gist of the question), in spite of the answer beginning with [ and ending with the matching ](). My answer here and the one it links to aren't specifically about flag and flag handling, but about how to react to not-an-answer-but-a-link-to-one posts as a community. – Gilles 'SO- stop being evil' Nov 22 '13 at 10:59

Straightforward answers without any explanations like code only answers.

  • 8
    So why is it that you feel that these answers are problematic. Could you expand on this viewpoint a little bit? – Servy Nov 21 '13 at 22:24
  • 2
    @Servy If he did that, then this answer would stop being a [probably intentional and humorous] example of his answer. – Doug_Ivison Nov 22 '13 at 19:57
  • 1
    @Doug_Ivison I know. I was playing along. – Servy Nov 25 '13 at 14:54
  • @Servy Yeeaaah... I'm so gullible I'll believe anything for 15 seconds ;) – Doug_Ivison Nov 25 '13 at 18:35

While people have mentioned multiple times the presence of lots of poor comments, another related problem is not enough good comments. I try to comment every time I downvote a post or vote to close or just see a poorly formulated answer or question. The questions from a particular person won't improve unless you explicitly tell what's wrong (at least try to). That especially concerns downvoting 1-rep users to -infinity and leaving witty comments instead of linking to rules and shortly explaining why this happens.


Posting full solutions to bad questions, ones that are essentially "I've given up on learning this / too lazy to study documentation. Give me the code please."

These should be downvoted/flagged but are often just answered instead, which encourages people to make more.

I have to assume the answers are hungry for reputation points as it's really not beneficial to the asker, they will not learn from being fed code to paste into their programs.

You see this a lot with and questions.


phpBB-like questions where the OP expects community to find and fix some trivial mistake in his code, or asking for advice what he should learn/read/use.

Duplicate questions occuring because OP couldn't understand the answer, or was too lazy to understand it, or even worse, too lazy to google before asking. Generally, that chatty (usenetty?) approach, that anything that isn't on main page doesn't exist.

Both above are symptoms of general ignorance towards FAQ from the many new users. They don't care to read it, and they don't feel the need to abide to it.


Theft of content. StackOverflow encourages users to copy/paste into the answers themselves instead of linking offsite. This means code snippets I spent a very long time on are being copyied off my blog (some with and some without attribution). Google really likes StackOverflow and then always returns that answer above my own site where the content originated. This is frustrating to me because I'd like to help share these answers with the community which is why I posted them publicly, but I'd also like to build my reputation as an expert in the field and this is harder to do when my posts answering difficult questions are not viewed as the authoritative subject on the matter despite being the original author.

The answer to this problem without making the StackOverflow experience worse is difficult. Maybe StackOverflow could at least do an automated web search at the time of posting for duplicate content and then link back to the original source when the author has not or suggest to the author that they include attribution in that case?

  • Im not sure anyone encourages that. In fact I flag a lot of that and it is removed. Paraphrasing is encouraged, copying is not – Richard Tingle Nov 27 '13 at 19:25
  • When you see this, just flag the posts for plagiarism. They will be removed and the posters will face consequences if they do it enough times. – Mysticial Nov 27 '13 at 19:27
  • 2
    If you find your content used like this (1) flag and it will be removed or (2) add the attribution yourself if you'd like it to stay – Richard Tingle Nov 27 '13 at 19:28

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