Is our metaphor broken?

Just asking this question makes my anxiety level approach the point it gets to almost every time I've ever asked a question, (which is well documented).

My anxieties are apparently not unique. Many people get a negative vibe from this site and I wonder if it could be fixed with a better metaphor.

I feel like the current metaphor is one of a garden in which the good questions are supposed to flourish and grow. The problem is the bad questions need to be weeded which makes for some tired and cranky gardeners.

It sort of reminds me of the old days on Digg, when a duplicate story was submitted and the community at large would have a conniption. In comparison, Twitter is a torrent of duplicate stories and it works!

What if the metaphor for StackOverflow/StackExchange was more like that of a river? Poor, off-topic, and duplicate questions could just flow by to a lake of obscurity.

Great, you say, but how would this work?

Glad you asked.

As noted on a recent question about negativity in the community, @Mystical had a nice breakdown of the types of problem users. To counteract that I picture a system like this:

  1. Question askers should get zero rep for an upvoted question. Zero. None. Zip.

    • As a self-declared question asker, it pains me to say it, but an answer to a question should be reward enough. This would prevent people asking questions just for the hope of rep.
  2. Answers should get zero rep unless N number of people (other than the answerer) upvote the question.

    • The idea here is that bad questions can get answered all day, but the answerer wouldn't get any rep unless the community agreed the question was worthwhile. Maybe the rep of the upvoter could play in here.
  3. No more vote to close, flag as dupe, etc.

    • In short, no more weeding. Just let the trash get swept to the sea. Moderation would still be necessary for gross abuse, but most of the irk would be eliminated.
    • With regards to duplicates, let them be. If there are duplicate questions that get enough upvotes to generate the answerer rep, so be it. Whoever declared questions can only be asked or answered once?

These are just ideas. I don't have answers. But I think the StackExchange network has a lot of discontent and my aim here is not to be derisive but constructive rather.

The End (?)

I've always wanted to love this site (and network). I love its ideals. I love the commitment that so many knowledgeable people put forth because they're passionate about what they know. But I rarely find what I am looking for here anymore and I am often too afraid to ask.

  • 8
    I disagree with most of what you had to say, but I downvoted specifically because of your 3rd suggestion. Closing Duplicates is necessary because they attempt to point users to existing answers to the same question. If I have a question and find a link on SO, why should I weed myself through 23 identical questions to find the best answer. – psubsee2003 May 22 '14 at 22:45
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    Re #1, people asking questions worthy of upvotes just for rep are the least of our problems. Re #2, you might want to read this post by Brad Larson if you haven't already. Come to think of it, that probably applies to #1 as well. Re #3, that's ... brave. How do you envision this sea? It sounds to me like a free-for-all where trash questions get asked and answered and we slowly turn into Yahoo! Answers. Especially in combination with #1 and #2, this removes all barriers to faceplanting into a keyboard and calling it welcome content. – Adam Lear May 22 '14 at 22:46
  • And closing as general is necessary for self preservation. Too many users ask off-topic or otherwise bad questions, and too many other users rush to try to answer them. These bad Q&A's lower the quality of the site which will eventually drive away the experts and then make SO no better than a random forum – psubsee2003 May 22 '14 at 22:47
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    Man, when I wrote that answer, I did so with a grin on my face and an attempt to inject some crude humor into a heated debate. I never expected it to get linked by so many people and blown so out of proportion. Apparently it was accurate enough for people to take it seriously... – Mysticial May 22 '14 at 23:01
  • @AnnaLear Questions which resulted in no rep could be deleted after X days. – plntxt May 23 '14 at 1:00
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    How would you tell a question that resulted in no rep because nobody saw it (due to sheer volume of new questions being posted) vs a question that resulted in no rep because people saw it but didn't bother to click an arrow vs a question who helped anonymous users who can't vote vs a question that was hilariously bad? (Just to name a few scenarios.) – Adam Lear May 23 '14 at 1:02
  • For what it's worth, I'm not trying to pick on your ideas. I'm just throwing out questions that we always have to consider before making any changes to the current system. There are a lot of moving parts here (and some of those parts are human), so any changes, especially drastic ones, have to be fairly well-vetted and as bulletproof as possible. – Adam Lear May 23 '14 at 1:04
  • @AnnaLear Maybe no-rep and no-up votes. Rep would no longer be passed to questioners. w/r/t the post by Brad Larson, people won't stop posting bad questions necessarily b/c of #1, but #2 makes the "repwhores" to quote Mystical less likely to answer. w/r/t #3 -- if that makes the signal to powerful then maybe an easier merge mechanicism so questions of similar content get grouped. – plntxt May 23 '14 at 1:08
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    #2 unfortunately also makes everyone else less likely to answer. To be honest, I think most people blow "rep-whoring" out of proportion. Outside of actual voting fraud, folks getting rep for posting good content (emphasis on "good", regardless of what it's in response to) is pretty well by design. If I ever find myself obsessed with the rep other people are getting (outside of my job requiring me to do so :)), I hope I take it as a sign to find a few questions I can answer instead of worrying about other folks. – Adam Lear May 23 '14 at 1:11
  • @AnnaLear Thanks, b/c it's hard not to feel picked on with the down votes flying at me just for sharing ideas. The ideas I'm throwing out there might be to extreme for SO to implement anyway. – plntxt May 23 '14 at 1:12
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    I do appreciate you putting the time in to start the discussion even if it's not turning out in your favour. :) – Adam Lear May 23 '14 at 1:13
  • The difference between Stack Overflow and Twitter is that on Twitter everyone has their own personal (customizable) stream that they follow. On Stack Overflow, I can follow certain tags, but I can't follow (or block) certain users. It wouldn't be useful to most people if we could do that. You'd only see questions from people you follow. – Bill the Lizard May 23 '14 at 13:34
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    I've up-voted because it's clear you've put some thought into this, and have some experience with the site to make the attempt. You are also presenting this constructively, which is always appreciated. Some of your observations are also pretty good, and as a bad user of metaphor, I find yours pretty good. That said, I don't think I agree with many of your proposals, for reasons that have been noted above. – Andrew Barber May 23 '14 at 14:16
  • @BilltheLizard Another point (and maybe for a different thread) A unified feed of all the networks I am a member of would be cool, because if I am in a "Question Answerin' Mood", I could peruse all of my interests. My apologies if this feature exists somewhere already. – plntxt May 23 '14 at 15:08
  • @AnnaLear What if #2 required one upvote from a user with a rep of say 15K or some arbitrary number. That would essentially validate that the question is good and then would be open for answers i.e. a bad question can't be answered until a reputable person says "looks legit". – plntxt May 23 '14 at 15:12

If we make a river, and we allow anyone to throw any old garbage in, the signal to noise ratio will drop so much that the experts who voluntarily spend their hours here daily will leave.

You're sitting on the bank of the river, and you see all sorts of fish go by. Pretty ones you don't understand but are interesting in and of themselves. Stout ones you might want to interact with. And whenever you come to the river you'll doubtless find a few that interest you enough to observe them, perhaps jumping in and interacting with them.

There are people who spend their time cleaning the river. "What's the use?" you might ask, "when it's all going into the ocean and likely won't be seen again since it's trash and no one is going to look for it?"

So you shoo the cleaners away, thinking that maybe you'll see more fish that way. Sure, some may be deformed, but fish are fish, right?

Then you see it. A tire. Why would someone put a tire in the river? Tires don't swim, and all the people along the bank are looking for fish! Oh well, it'll flow on by soon enough and it won't be so distracting.

More fish. Then a flotilla of grocery bags. Someone must have been in a hurry, because they dumped a lot of little pieces of plastic on the water, and while you know there's fish under there, you can't see them. Hopefully this passes soon, though.

But it doesn't. Eventually the river becomes a dumping ground for any and everything someone thinks to throw in it. You could visit and look for fish, but what's the point? You might see a good one among the garbage, but it's tiring trying to catch a glimpse of the interesting things you used to look for here.

So you eventually tire, and go somewhere else. Most of the others do as well. A few stick around, but since they studiously ignore all the trash, then the only thing left to the trash is other people who like the trash.

Trash questions getting trash answers.

Regardless of the metaphor used, these sites depend on keeping the experts around, and in order to do that we, as a community, work very hard to justify their time and effort by making sure they don't have to wade through trash to find things they can enjoy answering.

  • 1
    I hope someone illustrates this for me. – Adam Davis 'ze-zir-zem' May 22 '14 at 22:48
  • So long and thanks for all the fish. – apaul May 22 '14 at 22:55
  • You know it's a metaphor right? I'd wager many SO users use Twitter -- and there's certainly no trash there. – plntxt May 22 '14 at 23:55
  • Trash questions get trash answers is very true, but the ideas I was throwing out there were to figure out a way to discourage trash questions AND answers. Then the signal to noise ratio could improve. In my opinion the signal to noise ratio is already untenable. – plntxt May 23 '14 at 0:50
  • @Jim I don't think your methods would discourage trash questions at all to be honest. If you look at any trash questions that come around they are usually from relatively new users or absolutely new users. These people usually stumble upon the site and think that someone will answer their question and just do their homework for them. They have no interest in SO or rep, therefore rep will not motivate them. – CoderDojo May 23 '14 at 11:20

Twitter fails as an analogy. I rarely look at twitter. When I do, I follow my friends. No sane person just reads all the posts on twitter. Even if you replace 'all' with 'all the posts in a widely used hashtag', the result is the same.

If Stackoverflow were twitter, I'd never answer a question from someone like you, because I don't know you and so I wouldn't follow you. And any hashtag you shared with 1m other people would be so full of floating tires that I'd tire of following more or less immediately.

  • The only analogy is to the stream aspect, not the follower aspect. I can't follow you anyway, but a stream of questions of topics I am interested in would be great with the caveat that as you mentioned it didn't have too many floating tires. – plntxt May 23 '14 at 15:14

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