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I have seen online communities over the years, and the amount of foul language is really high. People are not polite to each other and flame wars are common.

Why is this community is so well-behaved? I don't see the moderators cleaning up the site, which means this is just the users being well-behaved. Do you have any idea why this is only happening on Stack Exchange?

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  • 37
    humor is welcome here. You guys are plenty hilarious without needing to rely on the crutch of expletives. Just look at Bill Cosby; one of the funniest, most highly respected comics ever, and he never needed to work blue to get there. Nov 27, 2009 at 15:51
  • 14
    And at the same time there are comics who are absolutely amazing at slipping dirty words into already funny content to make it even better. They're just words, with meanings; words that can be used in sentences like any other. You don't need them to be offensive and having them doesn't necessarily make a sentence offensive. Targeting them is misdirected effort. Targeting users who abuse the system such as with tags like plz-send-me-teh-codez is good. Targeting users who slip in words to make their statements more emphatic is bad.
    – Welbog
    Nov 27, 2009 at 15:56
  • I've always disagreed with the swearing rules, but I abide by them because I like the community. (You can check my track record on the infamous brainmunge question ... I totally disagree with them, but at the same time understand it is within management's rights to moderate.)
    – John Rudy
    Nov 27, 2009 at 17:06
  • @firtjer: To an extent, I agree. But this isn't exactly the civil rights movement. :) Even in the US, free speech always ended on private property -- there's precedent for that going back to almost the dawn of the country. This site is private property. Again, I disagree with the rule (particularly on Meta, wasn't this the "teachers' lounge?"), but I will abide by it.
    – John Rudy
    Nov 27, 2009 at 17:33
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    I see you're trying to form a cohesive argument against the stone-set policy regarding the usage of profanity within the Creative-Commons-licensed content of StackOverflow (which happens to be more of a metaphorical dictatorship rather than a democracy) by appealing to the sense that the greater good is freedom of speech and expression, regardless of what the status-quo considers 'professional'. You should totally drop that and try jQuery.
    – snicker
    Nov 27, 2009 at 20:06
  • related: What is the SE version of Seven Dirty Words? "Some words, when present in a comment, make it eligible for instant, automatic one-flag deletion..."
    – gnat
    Oct 1, 2014 at 7:36
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    10 years later.. and the Bill Cosby comment from @JeffAtwood is no longer appropriate.
    – elcuco
    Jun 16, 2019 at 7:55
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    @elcuco, I would say that Bill Cosby is no longer "one of the most highly respected" but he was quite funny. I see nothing inappropriate, though. Perhaps you meant no longer accurate?
    – WGroleau
    May 7, 2021 at 19:20

9 Answers 9

71

When people can vote on what you do, and those votes have consequences, that goes a long way toward encouraging proper behavior.

Beyond basic peer voting, which is huge, we also have four (!) tiers of moderation:

  • 15+ rep users can flag things as offensive or spam
  • 2,000+ rep users can edit anything you write
  • 3,000+ rep users can vote to close your question
  • 10,000+ rep users have visibility into system hotspots, flags, and can vote to delete content

We also have a policy of "be nice" and "try to post useful content" which is outlined in the /faq

There are also some professional connection, in that your public track record here can be used to show potential employers that you're a good communicator who is willing to help others in the community.

Also, on language, see Are expletives (cursing, swear words or vulgar language) allowed on SE sites?

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    IE: unlike actions everywhere else on the web, Actions have consequences. Contrary to what most psychologists and educators seem to be saying, consequences are very effective.
    – C. Ross
    Nov 27, 2009 at 16:45
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    I would add two things to this: (1) look at the age distribution on SO - there are children here, so please keep it G-rated. A man cursing at the cashier in Arby's around here one Sunday lunchtime recently was asked to leave - by a half-dozen angry patrons. And rightly so. (2) the man who resorts to expletives is demonstrating that his vocabulary is weak and he's out of ideas. Think of explietives as "verbal violence", and it's easier to see that they are rarely, if ever, appropriate in public. Nov 27, 2009 at 16:46
42

When Stack Overflow started out, it was fairly small, and everyone were happy little smurfs.

Village people

Then one day Gargamel showed up.

Garamel the meanie

With his foul language he tried to destroy EVERYTHING.

This made Smurfette cry and get very upset.

Papa Smurf the sage

So.... Papa Smurf, decided certain word are never to be uttered in Smurf village and using his magnificent reality distortion field smrufed the words out of existence.

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    Without Gargamel there would be no Smurfette. What do you have against females?
    – random
    Nov 27, 2009 at 21:46
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    I think I just laughed one one of my kidneys out... Nov 27, 2009 at 21:53
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    FYI: I am Gargamel now.
    – Welbog
    Nov 28, 2009 at 0:50
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    Smf you, smf you, sm**f you! Nov 28, 2009 at 11:55
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    That's one smurfin' good answer. Dec 21, 2009 at 9:44
  • You mean a SEP Field. Nov 21, 2011 at 6:16
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'cos "offensive" flags attract... the management

Hale and Pace, The Management

(edit: relevant YouTube videos for those of us who had no idea what this was)

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  • So voting up this comment... if I could, I would vote it up twice :)
    – elcuco
    Nov 27, 2009 at 16:08
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    @elcuco: It's your thread, so you can. Accepting it is sorta like upvoting it twice.
    – Welbog
    Nov 27, 2009 at 16:58
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    @firtjer no, this is not the correct answer, same for Jeff's answer. Even tough I do respect hi, and I do value his answers, in this case I don't. I want to know from the community is behaving like this - from themselves. I am in favor of humoros answers (see the title...) but a good responce is the best answer.
    – elcuco
    Nov 27, 2009 at 17:36
  • I have no idea who these clowns are, but they look about as funny as Bill Cosby.
    – innaM
    Nov 28, 2009 at 12:32
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    Hale and Pace..two british comedians who briefly did a stint on the bbc together...
    – t0mm13b
    Nov 29, 2009 at 0:29
  • @innaM - I'm afraid to say that these two 'comedians' were considerably less funny than even Bill Cosby, leg amputation or having to code in VB.Net :-(
    – 5arx
    Sep 14, 2010 at 14:56
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Confession time, I swear. I do curse at the computer for not loading fast enough, I curse at other people's code when it's awful, I curse at my own code when I realize how foolish I've been.

I do not curse at other people when they ask questions or respond to my, or other people's, questions. This is impolite and completely unacceptable.

So what is the fascination with, or the exclusive reliance upon, swears to communicate?

Seriously...

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Because even users with 15+ rep can flag posts as:

Offensive, Abusive, or Hate Speech

And 6 flags get an automatic closure/deletion so, even if there weren't the greater moderation powers available to higher rep users, with the numbers of users on SO questions that fall foul of the rules and guidelines don't tend to last very long.

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  • 6 votes are required for a answer/question. Now idea about comments. Nov 27, 2009 at 15:44
  • @gs - thanks for correcting me
    – ChrisF Mod
    Nov 27, 2009 at 15:55
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Yeah, Fork you too!

It could be because Stack Overflow has thousands of members with (limited) moderation powers.

It could also be because Stack Overflow draws another part of the public than e.g. a forum about some favourite boyband.

And, of course, because this site has so many active members at any given moment plus some smart algorithms to detect possible abuse, and thus abusive behaviour can be stopped real fast.

Plus, we have Meta Stack Overflow, where we can complain about anything that troubles us at Stack Overflow.

Still, peer pressure isn't enough to stop misbehaviour. Consider those Soccer Hooligans who misbehave during lots of all kinds of events, but mostly soccer sport events. Basically, these hooligans are just regular people and there are probably a few at Stack Overflow and Meta Stack Overflow. But they organise themselves in groups for organized misbehaviour. There are online groups of forum hooligans who tend to misbehave at dozens of forums and the only reason why they're not harassing Stack Overflow could be the moderation done by all members. Or maybe Stack Overflow just isn't interesting enough as a target.

Because, strange as it sounds, Stack Overflow might not be interesting enough for online hooligans to misbehave. :-)

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  • I wish the same could be said of my lawn... HEY! You hooligans get OFF my lawn! :) Nov 28, 2009 at 3:57
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I think it could be because downvoting someone works so much better than telling them to "F**-off".

I think downvotes actually represents quite nicely what intentional swearing (e.g. swearing to tell someone to shut up) in type means. A downvote is actually more effective than swearing cause it affects the recipient's reputation (and it shows you really meant it since it annoyed you so much that you were willing to take a downvoter-penalty yourself), while a curse can be ignored and upset innocent bystanders...

Sure you could "accidentally" utter "bad words" when actually talking. But you don't sit down and "accidentally type" a swear word.

-- Personally when I see a question or answer with lots of downvotes, its almost as if I can hear several people screaming "shut up!" or similar... ;)

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This is a somewhat task-centered collection of sites, unlike some, and that probably promotes civility. There are also consequences and people who will enforce the mores, and a sense of community. Finally, of course, there are plenty of people who can moderate in various ways, so this isn't like an unmoderated group.

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Regarding questions and answers, it is hard to imagine a scenario where a swear is necessary in prose to communicate the point more effectively (excluding things like quotes containing swears and questions about swears or terms containing swears).

First, including swears is going to make a question or answer unnecessarily offensive to some readers. Rephrasing the question to exclude them makes the question more approachable.

Secondly, setting aside the distraction of being offensive, the question or answer is going to be better without the swears, as they are just unnecessary fluff. This is similar to thank yous, greetings, etc. — a question doesn't communicate its content better with them present, so they should be removed.

Part of the responsibility of the Stack Exchange community is to ensure questions and answers are of high quality. This means omitting or editing out unnecessary and distracting prose, both of which swears fall into.

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    When I asked this question, more than 10 years ago, the internet was filled with phpbb forums, in which the language was... well, not "high" nor "polite". This site seems (then!) as another forum. After a few months of using it, I saw that the talk here is very different that those trash forums. I was surprised about that. BTW, the answer for my question was simple: aggressive moderation, which lead to eventually see "foul language" as the outlier and out of norm. Regarding "the question or answer is going to be better without the swears" - you should see what Linus Torvalds writes :)
    – elcuco
    Dec 8, 2021 at 10:13
  • @elcuco I suspect there's going to be a difference in communication style between a community moderated continuously refined site with a focus on specific technical answers, and a single guy advocating for a position or explaining their process or whatnot. But fair point. Also, thanks for the historical context. :-)
    – M. Justin
    Dec 8, 2021 at 16:35

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