Recently we have been treated to featured meta posts and blog posts about the importance of the "be nice"-policy, and how/why it should also apply to comments.

This is all fine. Educating each other about how we see their actions is surely the best way forward.

But, it seems to me the efforts of the offical SE are a bit one-sided in this regard. I like to discuss what I see as a cause of the untoward comments. After all, diagnosing and curing the cause is often more effective than concentrating on an isolated symptom.

A bit of personal background (explaining the -tag). I served as a diamond moderator on Math.SE for 3½ years. Lately I grew frustrated with the rampant dupe/homework asking/answering. I had, of course, nailed my colors to a mast of the flagship of the caretaker fleet. Eventually I lost my cool, and lashed out at a few repeat offenders. After this happened a few times I decided that rage makes bad fuel for a moderator, so I quit. I think I have counted to ten since - you be the judge.

On with my main point. Many of the borderline rude/abusive comments I have seen (and handled) were in my opinion caused by the commenter's frustration. Directed either at the asker or the answerer (or...). You see, neither group of users of types 2 or 3 pays any attention to site hygiene. Many questions were poorly researched (=the umpteenth incarnation of the same calculus or elementary number theory exercise), many were copy/pasted homework assignments. The answerers reproduced their versions of earlier junk answers, and danced along merrily. They got their 2 upvotes, the asker got their homework done. I'm sure you know the mechanism from elsewhere in the SE network. Sure, we put the question on hold, occasionally even manage to delete it. But, enough of those questions survive our wishy-washy site policies, so the incentive to keep answering them remains. The autocatalytic mechanism invites more copy/pasted homework. The word gets around...

My thesis is that giving users effective tools to stop the flood of poorly researched questions (and answers to such) would go a long way towards eliminating those unpleasant comments.

Sporadic thoughts:

  • It seems to me that the effect of the "be nice to noobs"-policy is to gradually throw away all the Burning Man principles Joel Spolsky described as necessary. Is this now the official SE view, or is it just a side-effect of the emphasis on politeness.
  • Namely, a 2-minute guided tour is not gonna cut it, if the new asker doesn't internalize the message that they are not entitled to instant gratification with minimum effort on their part. May be this is a generation thing? Reminiscing the days when new kids on the block were cautious, timid even, taking their time learning the local do's and do-not's.
  • The caretakes-types may be more prone to Duty Calls than your average user. But, these people got addicted to the SE model early on. They have contributed a lot. They are deeply invested in the well being of the site, and won't let the mob destroy it. Give them effective weapons, please. I'm afraid these outbursts will continue otherwise.
  • I concede that targeting the newbie askers here is not really fair, but we should double the effort to educate them. The answerers have more skin in the game, and can be reached. But downvoting answers to sub-par questions is not really a sufficient deterrent. Pity upvotes are a thing here.

I see myself (probably many caretakers feel the same way) as a seasoned art fan in a museum, say, Guggenheim. What's happening is roughly the following (yes, I have tinted spectacles):

  1. While having quality time at an exhibition, I spot a hoodlum with a spray can doing their worst.
  2. Not forgetting the "be nice" -policy, I ask them to stop, politely.
  3. He just laughs at me. A passer-by comments on how nice the sprayed on piece of art looks. They high-five.
  4. I call the museum guard, who waves a finger at them, and adds the "painter" to the list of persona non grata. But, first things first, I need to save the true piece of art. So I painstakingly clean up the mess.
  5. Next week, the same thing happens. As does on weeks three through six.
  6. On week seven, the same things happens again. I've had enough. I tell the next dude with the spray can in unmistakable terms what I think. After escorting the dude out the museum guard comes to me, cleaning up the mess. He then reminds me of the strict "be nice to other patrons" -policy the museum has. You see, this visitor was a noob who didn't have the time to read the instructions not to apply a spray can in the vicinity of the pieces at this exhibition.
  7. On week eight. I see yet another dude wielding a spray can enter the museum. I lose it and punch him in the nose. The guard promptly escorts me out. "Sir, that person is a noob. May be they were just starting to read the instructions, and about to leave their spray can in a locker? I'm going to have to ask you to leave."

Education, I said? Can somebody educate me, please.

How can we best deal with our own (and each others) frustration?


Edit:

Thanks to all for participating. I realize that my analogy was not fair. It is easy to understand that most new askers are a bit confused (also overwhelmed by the site rules). I came out as targeting the noobs, when in reality my words and actions lately have been targeting the enablers (those who answer bad questions without first engaging with the asker) aka type-3 aka [term discontinued]. I walk away from this thread with the following:

  • Ignoring the force of human nature is not very wise.
  • When serving I often referred to the SE staff as Overlords (when mere diamond powers were insufficient to serve a need). Subconciously giving them god-like powers. Cap'n Obvious called me and told me that they, too, have limited resources, and cannot fix everything right away, and need to prioritize.
  • We all need to compromise to coexist (but my mind is still in a place where I don't see the type 3's doing their part...).
  • May be the incentive structure needs fine tuning? Incentivize dupe hunting/closing? Disincentivize dupe/LQ answering?
  • Or (more radical) ABOLISH rep score altogether. Well, not altogether, but may be only post per tag rep! I don't know about SO, but at least in math the rep user has earned on a relevant tag correlates better with their ability to give quality answers rather than the overall rep. Total score is inflated by the low hanging fruits.
  • I realize that the suggestion in the previous bullet also has drawbacks. May be keep the old rep score as a currency for the purposes of privileges and bounties, but get rid of the weekly leagues and such that lead to extreme gamification (I learned that in SO some of those may boost people's job prospects, and that should be taken into account).
  • I don't think I should walk away from this thread. Rather I should revisit it periodically.
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    Comments archived. This is a meaty post - consider giving your thoughts room to breath in the form of an answer. – Shog9 Jun 29 at 17:46
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    I feel your pain. You can deal with your frustration by doing something else. Put some of the time you spend playing the SE game to better use by helping out at a local charity. They will be truely grateful for your time. Randomize your password, log out and tell your mail provider to blackhole mails from stackoverflow.email. If sufficient people do this the world will be a better place. SE may even notice a downturn in answers and attempt to solve the difficult issues rather than acting like a stuck record. Pigs may grow wings too. – user147520 Jul 1 at 19:29

14 Answers 14

Maybe it's the drought here in Colorado, but... I've been thinking a lot about water lately. In our society, water is simultaneously essential and a menace, a problem to be dealt with and a treasure to be chased after.

Water doesn't care what you want. No amount of pleading or nicely-worded signs are going to convince water to wet your parched plants when it wants to tear out a gully and carry away your precious topsoil. You can dam it, drain it, redirect it, slow it... But sooner or later, water always finds its level.

One of my earliest memories involved standing out on a freezing hillside helping my father lay out contour strips. Once plowed, the water would catch in the furrows and be absorbed, providing for the young seedlings and slowing the torrent that had previously cut deep ditches into the land. It took years and a lot of work to fully implement, but it worked: the entire farm was altered to accommodate what water wanted to do... Because the alternative was letting water destroy it. And water doesn't care.

Image of contour-planted fields contour-planted strawberry fields, photo by Lynn Betts, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.

I once compared the problems of Stack Overflow to intensive farming; perhaps I should've considered permaculture instead:

  • Care for the earth: Provision for all life systems to continue and multiply. This is the first principle, because without a healthy earth, humans cannot flourish.
  • Care for the people: Provision for people to access those resources necessary for their existence
  • Setting limits to population and consumption: By governing our own needs, we can set resources aside to further the above principles. This includes returning waste back into the system to recycle into usefulness. The third ethic is sometimes referred to as Fair Share, which reflects that each of us should take no more than what we need before we reinvest the surplus.

How might we apply these principles here?

  • Care for the site: the software itself is the framework on which everything else is built. The forms for creating posts and comments, the tags for organizing and integrating various sub-topics within the larger field, the infrastructure for finding and exposing each element to those who need it... All must be perpetually maintained. Like a swale across a hillside, the shape of the software itself and the meta-systems built with it (tags, documentation, scope) determine the behavior of users new and old on a fundamental level.

  • Care for the people: None of this is easy. We too easily talk about helpful people, ungrateful people, rude people... But ultimate, everyone here is a person, trying to work together with others on an impossibly huge, never-ending task. We get tired and need rest; we get frustrated and need encouragement; we get overwhelmed and need assistance. We're all in this together: the folks asking questions, the folks answering them, the folks moderating, and even the folks behind the curtain here at Stack Exchange, Inc. If we don't provide these necessities for one another, no one else will. The ground will go fallow.

  • Setting limits to population and consumption: There are limits to what any resource can provide. We may not know them, but they exist and when they are exceeded, everyone suffers. We may be able to expand those limits, plow new ground, but we cannot ignore them. This is why there are limits on questions, answers, even requests... There should probably be limits on comments too.

About 20 years ago, I started tutoring students taking computer programming classes. Invariably, their goal was to pass the class; learning the material was at best secondary to that goal - but with care, I could sometimes slow them down, help them come away with more than just a passing grade. When I joined Stack Overflow, it was in the hope of building something that would provide, for roughly the same labor, this sort of involuntary education for more than a single student. I've seen an awful lot of new students over the years, and no doubt there will continue to be new students long after I'm gone. Like drops of rain hitting the ground, they follow the path of least resistance toward their level, taking with them what they can but always, inexorably, followed by more. We can work with them, strive to build a sustainable culture... Or watch this all be washed away.

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    Wow. Just... Thanks for sharing. – Jyrki Lahtonen Jun 29 at 18:36
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    So, what is being worked on that will better allow the separation of the poisonous waters that will destroy our crops from the good waters? Or at least, without so much effort on the part of the farmers? – Nicol Bolas Jun 29 at 18:57
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    This water metaphor breaks down really fast, @Nicol... So I'll avoid going off on another rant about the shortsighted wastewater systems here in Colorado. The long-overdue ask form redesign is a method of slowing down new users, giving them time to read the guidance and maybe even their own question before posting. Meanwhile, we're looking at putting more tools in the hands of topic experts. There are also a few ongoing tests aimed at improving the accuracy of search. – Shog9 Jun 29 at 19:07
  • A few comments: 1) the idea of letting tag experts handle VLQ flags is interesting. I realize that getting that in Math.SE in addition to SO is in the distant future at best, but I already foresee the potential problem: I have seen tag gold badge holders getting into dupehammer wars, and also just undoing dupe closures. Cucumbers/type-3s often earn tag badges, you see :-/ – Jyrki Lahtonen Jun 30 at 14:08
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    Accuracy of search results is a major problem at Math.SE. MathJax/LaTeX. Google and friends cannot grok it. A concerned citizen coded a useful approximation, but it has shortcomings in its pattern matching (work in progress...). If the "usual" search were as good as the one at work when asking, things would be better. – Jyrki Lahtonen Jun 30 at 14:11
  • Yeah, there's a tragedy of the commons thing that happens here (as with any shared resource), @JyrkiLahtonen - there's deep disagreements over how the site should be used, and each person's attempt to use it as they please risks spoiling others' efforts. A big part of solving that comes from recognizing that these sites are a shared resource, and working from that toward some sort of compromise as to how the site should be used, what goals are being worked toward, etc. "Care for the people" - we have to recognize each others' concerns and work to alleviate them or this all falls apart. – Shog9 Jul 2 at 21:53
  • Search is a hard problem, @JyrkiLahtonen; something that might help a bit on math is better marking of duplicates... but of course, that's hobbled by lackluster search too. – Shog9 Jul 2 at 21:54
  • When a search for a duplicate in math only depends on finding that TeX-snippet approach0 actually works well. AT least sometimes. The one thing I cannot "forgive" is high rep users not bothering. Which brings me back to rereading your advice. :-/ – Jyrki Lahtonen Jul 2 at 21:58

I've been trying to do some self-reflection lately and figure out why there's so much drama going on right now. (In truth, the drama isn't new. We've had these sorts of discussions nearly as long as Stack Overflow has existed.) Recently, a friend of mine, who is a psychologist by trade, told me about the Karpman drama triangle:

Dreaded Drama Triangle

I bring it up because there are very obvious links between this model and Mysticial's model of personas on the site. The drama triangle is backed up by years of research and has been used to diagnose practical interpersonal problems. Since it's a more general model, there are also generalized solutions to break out of it. So, I think it's useful to think about where we all fit in the drama.

It might be easiest to think of the model in a family situation. Imagine a father who has high standards for his children and always makes them do extra chores (persecutor). His wife disagrees with his methods and helps out their children when her husband is not paying attention (rescuer). The children learn to depend on their mother to protect them from their father (victims). In extreme situations, this could be abusive. But let's think of a family that's fairly well adjusted. The father's demands are ordinary things like picking up after yourself and doing the dishes.

It's pretty clear that I and other employees of Stack Overflow see ourselves primarily as rescuers. Judging from your analogy, I'd guess that's where you put yourself too. It's generally the role that's seen as the most noble and desirable to be in. But it's important to be aware that playing any role in the drama means you are adding to the drama.

The rescuer believes they are making the situation better, but can be enabling the victim's helplessness. Rescuers tend to be disappointed when the victim fails to appreciate their help. Rescuers fail to address the problem created by the persecutor, who often feels like they are the victim in this situation. (In fact, the roles are fluid though one is usually primary.) Often rescuers are avoiding dealing with their own struggles by focusing on other people's problems.

I've talked about this idea with the rest of the community team, but it's mostly my personal way of thinking about drama on the network. Many people at the company are sensitive to the people who seem most in distress. Whether consciously or not, we tend to think of new users, first-time askers and non-users as victims of a small number of active users. There's a very real risk the company is enabling negative behavior. It sounds like this is exactly your concern.

Over the years, we've attempted to protect the site from a flood of questions. To quote myself:

Ultimately, we have millions of people visiting the site. While there are many prompts, blocks and limits slowing down questions, the small percentage of visitors who make it through turns out to be a large absolute number. For better or worse, the barriers to asking mean that the most determined (or, perhaps, desperate) users actually post.

Notice that efforts to block askers are seen as persecution by people outside of the community. And it's hard to disagree with that assessment. Along with the spam and unresearched questions, we are certainly discouraging some legitimate questions too. Meanwhile, within the community demanding askers can also be persecutors. I've personally been berated by people who are blocked from asking. They feel it's their right to post on the site. In other words, both new users and seasoned veterans can be victims. (And it's possible we're enabling them both.)

With the mentoring experiment and the "Ask a question" wizard prototype, we are thinking of new ways to coach askers. Similarly, the work we are doing with "be nice" is an attempt to coach answerers who are frustrated with bad questions. We believe we need to tackle both ends of the issue if we hope to make a difference. In these examples, we're not enabling, but taking the role of coach to help users succeed.

Stack Overflow has programmer culture in our DNA. As a profession, we tend to think there are technical solutions to every problem. In the weeks, months and years to come, the company is going to imply or outright say we have solutions to problems on the sites. Don't believe us. At best we can provide the tools users need to address social problems and change the systems behind the site to nudge people in the right direction.

We've said for a long time our sites are "built and run by you". What that means is you have agency to create content and, as you gain reputation, curate other people's content. If you are feeling helpless in the face of vandals (or vampires or other villains), the system isn't working for you. If a new user feels they can't ask a question safely, the system isn't working for them either.

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    I'm about to go on vacation, but I didn't want to leave some of these thoughts unsaid. Please forgive me if they rub you the wrong way. When I come back from some time off, I'll revisit this to see if I was speaking from an honest place or if a mental break has changed my mind. – Jon Ericson Jun 30 at 22:13
  • Thanks for sharing, Jon. Studying the responses here does give me some perpective. I haven't really settled to a "new" role, and am still processing all that happened. May be I should have counted to twenty before posting? Anyway, venting frustration (or blowing off some esteem, as I used to call it) in itself made me feel a bit better. – Jyrki Lahtonen Jun 30 at 22:14
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    I'm glad to have had the opportunity to write this, @JyrkiLahtonen. We at the company really do take on the role of rescuers promising to solve all your problems. (See Docs, Jobs, Teams, etc.) Even if we could, it's not a healthy place for us. – Jon Ericson Jun 30 at 22:17
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    your figure lacks the fourth angle. Using your analogy the problem with these these "victim kids" is they beat other kids in the street. Returning back to Stack Overflow situation, askers flooding site with inappropriate questions make it hard to use for folks like me, for those who rely on SO help in searching for solutions to their programming problems. Quoting self, "I don't want my search results polluted with useless solutions to homework dumps..." – gnat Jul 1 at 21:52
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    Thanks for sharing your very valuable insight. Given that Tim Post and Shog are most prominent, it is easy to forget that there is an invisible group of SE who has experiences which I and other users here don't see. It's easy to conflate opinions of the most prominent employees here with the team of Stackexchange. – Thorsten S. Jul 2 at 2:01
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    This one doesn't include the content. Granted, the content is not a person, but it is the most valuable asset everyone here has. – Braiam Jul 2 at 12:58
  • @Braiam: I guess I don't see how content can create drama on it's own. Surely it is people who create, edit, vote on and delete content as I say in the final paragraph. If you look at the most valuable content we share there is very little drama surrounding it. Instead, the drama comes from the millions of minor questions that aren't seen by more than a hundred people. Unless someone answers and edits these questions (which sometimes happens) they usually matter only to the asker. So, you know, it's a puzzle. – Jon Ericson Aug 31 at 20:43
  • @gnat: I'm curious how often this happens to you. Personally I have more problems with decent questions that solve other, but closely related, problems than I do with wildly off topic and useless answers. I can't think of a time Google (or our internal search for that matter) showed me an answer that was utterly useless rather than just unhelpful to me at that particular time. Maybe I'm lucky? Next time you run into the problem, maybe drop a comment with your search terms so we can diagnose the issue together. – Jon Ericson Aug 31 at 20:47
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    well Jon it's not bad really, at least not yet. :) My main point was to remind that DDT diagram misses one group of people (which I happen to belong to when coding). After that I just tried to match this missing group into your analogy with parents and children – gnat Sep 1 at 7:00

Enforcing the "Be Nice" policy is something that is actually possible. Getting people to stop posting bad questions is far, far more difficult. Of course solving one of the root causes would be a great thing, but that's not always possible. There are many real world problems that could be simply solved by creating world peace, getting people to refrain from asking bad questions is probably only marginally less difficult than that.

There is also a significant part of "Be Nice" issues that aren't directly connected to quality issues. The perception that SE is a hostile place is also a barrier to recruiting new, good users. Users that just want to dump their homework probably care much less about hostility than user that actually want to participate.

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    "There is also a significant part of "Be Nice" issues that aren't directly connected to quality issues." I don't buy that there is a significant number of these issues. Problems on non-terrible questions generally arise because of a technical/personal argument between people about a question/answer. But this doesn't happen nearly as often as bad questions provoking bad comments. And if the powers that be can create an AI that can find "not nice" comments, why can't they train an AI to find "not good" questions? – Nicol Bolas Jun 29 at 14:06
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    @NicolBolas Not all sites are about technical questions, there are many other potential sources of conflict. And I suspect that some kind of machine learning approach to detecting problematic questions is something SE will do at some point, ideally also for detecting duplicates and pointing users towards them early. – Mad Scientist Jun 29 at 14:12
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    ..and everything is the fault of SO curators, who must therefore spend more time framing comments and answers in an ill-defined 'welcoming, nice' fashion and less time using their vast breadth of experience in their field to handle good questions:( – Martin James Jun 29 at 15:34
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    'Users that just want to dump their homework probably care much less about hostility' oh, I agree with that. They do, however care that 'hostile' or whatever, comments appear in place of an answer. That is unforgiveable, and so they will lash out in any way they can. – Martin James Jun 29 at 15:37
  • I'm still undecided whether I agree or disagree with your post. I realize that my post came out strongly as targeting the noobs. Yet, my "wrath" is mostly directed at the "type 3"s or, more generally, the enablers of bad questions. I agree about the difficulty of stopping bad questions. But, answers to bad questions are easy to stop. Just implement a network wide policy that all answers to closed questions are deleted by the moderators. True, that won't stop some people, but those driven by reputation would soon figure out the futility of answering bad questions, restoring relative peace. – Jyrki Lahtonen Jul 4 at 20:40

You're conflating art vandals with users that simply have a question to ask and have difficulty navigating our (admittedly) complicated system. Art vandals are intentionally defacing things that they know others value, nervous programmers are just trying to get their jobs done.

I'm going to answer the parts of your post that don't depend on that comparison, because I just can't answer to it while validating certain parts of your post that I agree with. But let me toss this out:

  • New users aren't art vandals, or some kind of malignancy. We're taking pretty broad strides into improving the new user experience through a new guided way to ask questions, dedicating an entire team to make product improvements to help new users avoid pitfalls, and yes - admitting that our culture isn't very welcoming and taking steps to fix that.

  • Math SE is pale in comparison to what we're observing on Stack Overflow. While math has some fairly complicated issues that are hardly intrinsic, it's simply in a very different place.

  • We're ramping up support for, and communication with our community moderators. That's something we've never done consistently enough and I'm determined to fix it.

  • Did you miss the part where I mentioned that condescension and snark create a rather bleak self-fulfilling prophecy?

Finally, that we're focusing on areas where we can make immediate headway is in no way some kind of resignation from the others. How we prioritize depends on a vast number of things, not all of them are public (like the chronic valid email complaints of people saying awful things, among other things). We fully know that we need to do more than just influence social change in order to make things better.

But please - examine what led you to compare new users to art vandals because it's a very common bias. I once explained the conflict as an army of giants stepping on a heavily guarded castle and thereby threatening the very existence of the realm, and here's a great image to illustrate that:

That's a castle, alright.

You can totally tell that's a castle that's vital to our survival, right?

Being nicer is never a bad thing, and nothing is ever going to come at the expense of what everyone should be doing anyway. And what we're asking isn't new, we're just enforcing it, and clarifying it where needed.


Image credit: BookartXD on Deviant Art

  • Analogies often don't hold up, but now I'm curious about this story. Care to link it? – fbueckert Jun 29 at 14:59
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    "You're conflating art vandals with users that simply have a question to ask and have difficulty navigating our (admittedly) complicated system." This phrasing ignores whether such users care about navigating our system. I submit that the people behind the torrent of low-quality questions on SO do not care about our system; they just want help. They aren't interested in using SO in a way that helps create a quality database; they want help. This flood creates negativity, because it is an affront to those of us who are invested in Stack Overflow. – Nicol Bolas Jun 29 at 15:01
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    Or to put it another way, the difference between "art vandals" and "new users misbehaving" is irrelevant. They both cause the same damage, and both of them must be stopped to allow SO to continue to succeed. – Nicol Bolas Jun 29 at 15:02
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    @NicolBolas a vandal with a can of spray paint and a clumsy person who's about to back into a display of Ming vases both do harm to the art, but their intentions are clearly different and that matters. You've got to stop both of them, but treating the klutz like a vandal isn't ok. – Monica Cellio Jun 29 at 16:06
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    @MonicaCellio: "but their intentions are clearly different and that matters" It doesn't matter to the janitorial staff who have to clean up after them, does it? – Nicol Bolas Jun 29 at 16:35
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    @NicolBolas I said you need to stop both of them. One of them you want to punish; the other you want to teach. I am assuming in this metaphor that the art museum wants to continue displaying its holdings to most of the public, saving the "you are no longer welcome here" treatment for the vandals and the unteachable. – Monica Cellio Jun 29 at 16:36
  • Thanks for taking the time to answer. Appreciated. Perspective is what I really wanted to get here, and this contributes just that. Getting late here, more tomorrow. – Jyrki Lahtonen Jun 29 at 20:20
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    @MonicaCellio: "One of them you want to punish; the other you want to teach." Taking the time to "teach" someone takes time and effort away from those who themselves take the time and effort to ask a good question the first time. See, the problem is that you see this as personal. To you, it's about what we do to the person. To me, it's about what we do to the questions. The person is irrelevant; only the content matters. And if the content is low quality, for whatever reason, it must be expurgated. If having their content stopped or downvoted harms the person... I can live with that. – Nicol Bolas Jun 30 at 1:58
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    A good question dosen't need much time to take the effort to reward. Post a great answer, or even upvote. Heck, I've sometimes even put a bounty on someone else's question because I found it added to my knowledge. And No one's holding a gun to your help and asking you to engage anyone. This seems to be a bit of an extreme view. – Journeyman Geek Jul 1 at 7:22
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    New users aren't art vandals, or some kind of malignancy. Sigh, there is no filter for new users. 70% of all new users are more or less normal, 15% are exemplary users and the remaining 15% are bad in many ways, not only as "art vandal": malicious, problematic or simply psychically draining. There is a reason we have the "Be Nice" rule. The problem is that few problem users can make a site intolerable for regulars and other visitors, so Jyrki tries to point out that you should not only welcome new users, but retain old users and he wants a solution, not just reaffirmations. – Thorsten S. Jul 2 at 1:33
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    I remain skeptical that SE can put any sort of appreciable dent into the asymmetry of effort problem that causes people to become rude when they otherwise wouldn't be. Cause and effect seem to suggest that prolific users that get their snark on do so because they've seen the same misbehavior too often. I don't think software can substantially change human nature, but maybe y'all will pull it off. – Magisch Jul 2 at 11:07
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    @MonicaCellio I think we're talking about different things here. The art vandal isn't the same as a confused new user, no. But a lot of poor question askers aren't confused users. They're users that literally do not care about getting anything beyond their answer. The number of times I've seen someone post a terrible question and then abuse the people actually trying to help them is.. quite large. Especially on sites like SO/SU/AU. These people don't care. No one has a problem with the person who just needs a little help with the rules. – ɥʇǝS Jul 5 at 23:54
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    Frankly I'm very upset at SE and a large chunk of the community who, when people complain about the very real help vampires (oh no! I used an evil word!) exclaim "what! No, these are just poor users who need a little help with the system", completely ignoring the fact that the person was just abused by said "poor user" for exactly that. Trying to provide that "little help". This, of course, doesn't help this person's attitude towards these new users, nor the people ignoring the problem. Now multiply this by a few years. – ɥʇǝS Jul 5 at 23:59
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    @NicolBolas My point is not the rudeness is rude. It is handled well. My point is the user demonstrates that they have no interest in being constructive members of the community or putting effort into a quality question. This is ignored. The rudeness is almost always cleaned up, as it should be. And that's what happened here too. Instead of talking about the actual vandals that are described in this question, both Tim and Monica ignore these and shift the discussion (which is technically a straw man, I guess?) to "users that just need help navigating". Not at all what the OP described. – ɥʇǝS Jul 6 at 0:27
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    I'm probably taking your analogy a bit too literally (given that my analogy was misguided), but are you implying that "defenders of quality content" are defending a cushion fort? I haven't participated in other Q&A platforms (since the math usenet group was overrun by crankpots), but I thought that quality and expertise is SE's shtick, separating it from Yahoo Answers and such. Admittedly in the eyes of a professional math guy "quality and expertise" mean something different than they do to a calculus help seeker. – Jyrki Lahtonen Jul 6 at 4:54

How can we best deal with our own (and each others) frustration?

Before I answer that question, lets dive into some anecdotes and metaphors, seems proper. Lets start first with two anecdotes, one very recent and another somewhat old and then a study on the cost of stuff.

I was attending to a beginners course for R, in which the facilitator at the end recommended some books and tools to help yourself. One of those tools was "Stackoverflow", which was described as "super helpful". I was flabbergasted. Stack Overflow being helpful? In that same breath, while explaining the usefulness of SO in a quickie, mentioned two things:

  • "you can ask questions", to which I almost screamed "NO!" and
  • "most likely the answer is already there, so you just have to search for it" ...!? Wait, what?

So, there you have it. SO is not only helpful to beginners, you are recommended to ask questions in it, but not without searching before. Why couldn't people introduce Stack Overflow that way to everyone? Also, although is not the first time I heard about SO in my immediate surroundings, is the diametrical opposite of the anecdotes that many people share about the site.

The other anecdote is about my first question on SO. Is not deleted, and if you see the first revision, other than the first line, there isn't much to improve. I kind of meet all the criteria of Jon Skeet question checklist, and I was trying to mixing three libraries, a framework (which isn't shown) for a small project after less than 12 hours of reading some python documentation. Granted, is not an stellar question, but it got 2 upvotes, no downvotes and no unnice comment (as far I remember).

There's a common theme on both anecdotes: they do the "right" thing that most as veterans SE members have present. I like to think that both individuals involved did for a single reason: respect for the art site and its dwellers.

And this respect, usually comes as a cost for the user, since they are more invested into the goods it has value, since they know it's not free:

Another important element of the distribution campaign is ensuring they are used properly. This means discouraging people from using them as fishing nets or cutting them into bath sponges, for example.

Distributing the nets without charge can exacerbate this problem. "In sub-Saharan Africa, there’s a tendency to look at products that are provided free as being of little or no value,” says Mr Yeboah. “And charging some money is also a mechanism to ensure that one can sustain the supplies – because the donors are not going to continue providing them forever."

For the new user, there's no cost to interact with our sites paid upfront. Usually, when something is free of cost (not necessarily monetary) the value assigned by the users is too low, and the good or service end up being squandered by the users they are supposed to work in their own benefit. And we all know that adding value to the corpus, is not without cost. This asymmetry in costs makes the ones that actually pay frustrated, because their investment isn't being respected and used without care.

So, like in your analogy, informing them before entering that there's a cost and that they should respect the museum and the pieces exposed by following the guidance, would work towards actually improving the situation. Using just niceness is difficult, because most people associate it with pleasantries. Now, respect is more concise among cultures. For that I propose that we replace the "be nice" with "be respectful".

Be respectful of your fellow humans and dog.
Be respectful of the content of the site and maintain it.
Be respectful of the people answering and asking questions.
Be respectful of the site guidance, as that's the only thing preventing us from eating one another.

  • +1 for the dog reference :) – DavidPostill Jul 1 at 5:42
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    Your mosquito nets link got me thinking about the dangers of paternalism in these discussions; there's a nasty tendency for otherwise well-intentioned folks to look at the problems faced by [Africans|new users] and... start treating them like children, incapable of handling responsibility or making decisions for themselves. Something to watch out for! – Shog9 Jul 2 at 21:58
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    @Shog9 the people on that link were all humans. Their behavior is as humans act with the proper (dis)incentives. What we need to do is to exploit the human behavior to achieve the desired results, giving the correct incentives. The purpose of that link is to illustrate how people could act against themselves, even when they are being rational. Watch out for the prisoner dilemma, which is frustratingly frequent in the real world. – Braiam Jul 2 at 22:41
  • Great to mention the dogs, but this post needs more horse - in the spirit of cowbell. – Yvette Colomb Sep 25 at 2:03

I agree with most of the post, and know intimately the frustration you are speaking about. Still, I will write a partial answer (by no means a full one!) which you won't like.

One of the necessary conditions for dealing with this kind of frustration is empathy for the noob. Your question, which is carefully written to be very constructive despite the strong emotions behind it, still shows a bias in the way you are framing the situation. You compare the noob to a vandal who deliberately destroys a work of art.

I would suggest a reframing. Imagine that the noobs belong to a tribe which grew up in the jungle and never had contact with civilization. And you are not in a museum, but in a garden. Your jungle visitors always take the shortest path instead of staying on the paved roads, pick the prized apples from the trees and spit out the seeds on the benches. They don't do it because they want to destroy the garden, but because they don't even start to realize the concept of somebody planting a garden and keeping it in a certain state.

This reframing might clash with some notions you might have ("They are the ones destroying everything, and now I have to take their side!") but seriously, adopting this attitude reduces your own frustration, making your own day better. And it elegantly interrupts the scenario in which you are escorted out for punching somebody.

This is to be seen in addition to, and not as a replacement, to other efforts directed at reducing the damaging influence that clueless noobs have on the sites and their regulars.

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    And when our jungle visitors enter our garden, they should try to learn the rules, just like they would in the tribe they grew up in. "This is the way I'm used to" is an excuse for laziness, and disrespects the gardeners keeping the place looking good for all visitors. – fbueckert Jun 29 at 14:23
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    @fbueckert well, by the same argument "this is the way I'm used to" could be applied to the people who are used to being snarky and condescending. Being welcoming and kind benefits the entire site, not only the "noobs". How can they know they're disrespecting a gardener they don't know exists? – Catija Jun 29 at 14:33
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    @Catija And we see a lot of training going on for the gardeners, and not much at all for our visitors. Gardeners seem to be trying, but are being, and have been, ignored when they voice their concerns. If you don't want your gardeners to be snarky, then maybe you need to install a gatekeeper that cleans up your visitors before releasing them into the garden. – fbueckert Jun 29 at 14:36
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    @fbueckert The training for the new users requires UX changes. New users won't read meta. UX takes more time and requires developers. Writing meta posts and updating the Code of Conduct takes time but no developers. They are working on both halves of the equation, though. They are working on ways to educate new users in how to write better questions but being kinder to people everywhere on the network is still important and if it's faster to implement, that's OK... but I don't think it's accurate to say that they are ignoring the gardeners' concerns. – Catija Jun 29 at 14:39
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    @fbueckert you bring up one of the most difficult things in community building (and highly relevant too). It is indeed important that the new people learn the basic rules in our community. And teaching and mentoring new people has its own rewards, especially in seeing the mentees get better. The difficult part here is that they do learn (slowly), but every day, there are fresh ones. So the regulars are barraged with a constant stream of noob behavior, and that's where their frustratioon comes from. Any solution has to acknowledge the need to deal with those who have not yet learned anything. – rumtscho Jun 29 at 14:43
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    @rumtscho I've always been a huge proponent of quality. And I do feel we can be more welcoming. But that welcoming has to be a two way street. We are a community, and new users must try to adapt to us. In return, we try to guide users towards how to do so. I see lots of attempted guidance. I see almost no new users trying to adapt. They are basically unicorns. I agree this is a problem, and needs to be worked on. I agree we can always do more. I disagree with the current thrust, as I feel we're fixing symptoms, not the problem. – fbueckert Jun 29 at 14:47
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    @Catija I'd really like to see what SE has done to help curators keep the site clean. Because we're into, what, the third Summer of Love attempt, with the attendant backlash, and I can't seem to recall any changes SE's made to help us with that task. So, yes, I do feel like we're being ignored. – fbueckert Jun 29 at 15:01
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    @rumtscho: "Any solution has to acknowledge the need to deal with those who have not yet learned anything." Does it? Why? Can't we just stop them from asking bad questions to begin with? We don't have to deal with people who can't follow the rules. – Nicol Bolas Jun 29 at 15:05
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    @Catija So we've made one small step in three years, while every year, we have another iteration on how we have to help new users. I'm sorry, and call me cynical, but I don't see that as enough. My perception is that new users is more important to SE than giving us curators effective tools to keep it clean. – fbueckert Jun 29 at 15:11
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    @fbueckert I agree. I wonder what happened. Spending time lurking and getting to know a community by watching it before posting was once part of net culture (looking back at newsgroups, newsletters etc). It was expected of new users to do their part and adapt. – Modus Tollens Jun 29 at 15:12
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    @fbueckert Well, I think that there's a lot more complexity going on than just that. In a comment on the question you talk about the "quest to Get Bigger". Perhaps if you reframe that as a "quest to Be Solvent"? SO is a company. They have staff who need to be paid... and they laid off a good number of them six months ago because they needed to redirect the way the company works. They tried some things that didn't work and now (from what I understand) things are stable and they're growing... and focusing on Q&A. I appreciate that and am really looking forward to improvements. – Catija Jun 29 at 15:14
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    @Catija: "How do you propose to stop people from asking only bad questions?" The same way the blog post proposes to stop people from making "not nice" comments: use a machine learning algorithm to figure out what "bad questions" are and cull them when the user tries to ask them. – Nicol Bolas Jun 29 at 15:14
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    @Catija: "Is there any indication that they're not doing that?" That's not how evidence works. They've said they're doing it for comments. They haven't said they're even considering it for questions. That tells you where the focus is. – Nicol Bolas Jun 29 at 15:19
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    @Catija: "Such a comment tool would also catch new users who respond in very negative ways to requests to improve their questions." Yes, it will stop them. But it doesn't matter. Such comments don't hurt long-time users; we've seen it and are clearly willing to tolerate it. And sanctions handed down to new users don't matter, since they can just make a new burner account and ask again; they have no investment in their current account. So such sanctions will affect long-time users more than new ones. – Nicol Bolas Jun 29 at 15:24
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    @Catija I don't buy the no blame part; Jay's blog post makes it very clear where he believes the problem lies, and platitudes about not blaming anyone ring false. Nick's subsequent post just crystallizes where some employees think the problem is. I agree that we can try harder. I agree we shouldn't take it out on new users. But I see lots being done to help new users, and vanishingly little to help curators. So if SE wants us to be more welcoming, give us some more tools to actually deal with the problem, instead of just telling us we're doing it wrong. – fbueckert Jun 29 at 15:28

I agree with pretty much all of the points in your question. I think "be nice" is an odd topic at the moment, and there seems to be a lot of debate around what "be nice" even means.

It should be a general rule to be nice, but a lot of focus seems to be on comments for some reason, as if they're the problem. But it's not the case IMO:

  • Comments should "be nice" and explain the rules and requirements of this site in a more welcoming way rather than short and blunt. This may make "some" people feel welcomed and more likely to improve their question/answer.
  • Question askers should "be nice" and recognise their question is site content which can be bad and thus harmful to the site in various ways. Questions produce much work and resource usage, by bringing about the need for edits, comments, votes, flags, and answers. This is a lot of power, and with it comes great responsibility.
  • New users should "be nice" as they're new to a site, and should take some time to learn its ways. E.g. when someone informs them their question has an issue, they should look to fix it. They should be nice and not want to come to a new site and expect everything to be their way, on a site that's been here for many years with specific ways. Once a new user posts their question there is no "us and them" they're entirely part of the "us", and should care about the site and the quality of that question.
  • Answerers should "be nice" and recognise that answering poor questions may well give that one person information they wanted, but the site repeatedly makes it clear this is not what it wants. It adds poor content, which in turn attracts more poor content. We have millions of questions and answers, and it only needs a small percentage of those to be bad for it to be fairly noticeable and have a negative impact.
  • Stack Exchange company should "be nice" and recognise that those arguing over the poor and lazy questions, and those who answer them, have to heart the very interest and goals Stack Exchange declares it has.

Some return points on what I've seen debated so far:

  1. Site rules cannot only apply to those who have read and understood them! This would be unfair, so even new users without knowledge should be expected to learn, or need to be issued any relevant penalties.
  2. Being a new user is not an excuse to not fix a poor question once learned of that requirement. They are getting all the benefits of the site's resources, functionality, and people's time, and it is therefore only fair that they uphold the requirements that make the sites great in the first place which is providing them with the aforementioned goodies!
  3. "Be Nice" is great, but should not mean "leeway to let the rules slip by". That includes bad question after question after... and nothing done about it.
  4. This should be about "all users" being nice, and regardless entirely of any particular action taken. So rather than focussing on commenters being unkind, also see that poor questions are unkind to both people trying to help and quality of the sites.

Most importantly:

  1. If question quality rules were perhaps a bit stricter, but definitely enforced much sooner so bad questions don't stand a chance, then there'd be much less of a problem with people not being nice, because there will be much less to not be nice about!

There are many ways to fix (5), but they're risky so the site won't take the risk in case it backfires.

If we could make a ton of bad questions not happen, and more go away quickly, it would greatly reduce bad comments and people not being nice, because laziness and no care for the site's quality is where a lot of "not being nice" comes from.

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    I find this idea that posting poor questions represents rudeness equivalent to telling someone off is quite frankly absurd. Yes, a bad question is not good for the site, but it is not in the same ballpark as a direct, personal attack. Second, it should be noted that the Meta post on comments never mentions new users or established uers. The statements outlined there are about all comments, not just comments from non-new users. – Nicol Bolas Jul 2 at 2:08
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    @NicolBolas compared to someone telling someone off, of course that's more rude. But that's such a small percentage of what this whole be nice in comments offensive has been about. It's about snarkiness, sarcasm, neither of which are "telling someone off": and often are instead providing valuable criticism only in a way that is more blunt than is needed. "Telling someone off" already gets routinely flagged and dealt with.It's the snarkiness and sarcasm that hasn't been handled properly. – Kevin B Jul 2 at 15:25

There's a few practical considerations here.

There's almost certainly a PR angle. I'm sure folks in SO Corp are hearing a lot of voices we don't about how SO feels hostile towards new users - not just the really loud ones we notice. In a sense we're in a bit of a blind spot. We have a clear idea of what we want, just not always the perception someone who hasn't had 6 months or a year or 8 years on the site has.

Be nice has also been a bit of a cornerstone of interactions on SE from the start - the only difference I suppose is that every so often folks go "We could be doing better on this front"

As an early, but not so early user of the network - well, I've had the benefit of growing with the rules. Some of my early posts probably wouldn't pass muster these days.

And well, a lot of old users are eventually going to leave. Some get bored, find other things and so on. Sites are going to rely on a core of new users.

I used to be part of a small community that was a little on the fringe, and sometimes attracted even fringier folk. It was in a interesting situation where it needed some quality control to keep out the crazy folk to keep the slightly saner and interesting ones. At some point, the admin went on a bit of a power trip. He ended up chasing off one of the mods, and her friend. There was no real new blood. Eventually people left, or even died. Last I checked, there were two idling people left in their chatroom, their website was gone...

So its a balance. Quality is important. On the other hand, some of the newbies you chase off might end up being folks who're engaged and willing to contribute in future. On the other, we're here for the challenging posts and the imaginary internet points.

There's always going to be some folks who're primarily going to see SE as a place to ask questions, and not really make an effort. There's going to be the folks who dump misformatted code, or use it as ELIF as a service. Its ok. We can still be civil, and just close, DV or delete these things. On the other hand, its not really healthy to see it as a "us vs them". To see new users as vandals - rather than, well, people who haven't had the same experiences you've had.

In a sense, the be nice policy, and helping onboard new users is a good strategy for the long term health of a site. Helping them get up to speed and maintaining post quality isn't orthogonal to it.

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    "Helping them get up to speed and maintaining post quality isn't orthogonal to it." I don't come here to help someone get up to speed on this site. That's not why I was attracted to SO. I came here because I enjoy answering interesting questions, and that's it. Why should I invest time in helping people do what they've been told to do? Also, new users are not vandals; vandals are vandals. That is, users who post crap questions are vandals, whether they're new or old. – Nicol Bolas Jun 30 at 2:05
  • Some evidence for your claim about the public image of SO: hackernoon.com/the-decline-of-stack-overflow-7cb69faa575d – Chair Jun 30 at 13:50
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    @Chair That's not evidence. It's a rant by someone who doesn't get SO's purpose. – fbueckert Jun 30 at 15:24
  • @fbueckert It is a rant by someone about the high entry barriers. Yes, they don't understand the purpose and the measures taken to ensure the proper running. I don't agree with the claims at all, and it seems like a lot of fallacious reasoning What they see as 'people running away' is actually just help vampires who misuse SO for their own quick needs. But it shows that people outside aren't happy with SO, which is evidence. They paint a nasty, false picture of SO as rude and elitist. Note the number of upvotes/claps on the post: it's very popular. The comments there empathize with the author. – Chair Jun 30 at 16:16
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    @Chair People not understanding SE are not worth considering. Yes, they are not happy, but they are the kind of people we can't make happy. So trying does nothing but frustrate us all. And when someone tries that hard to misunderstand SE, I feel giving them attention does nothing but validate their opinion. – fbueckert Jun 30 at 18:09
  • I am going to disagree somewhat. I do agree there's folks who fundamentally disagree with how we run SE without understanding what makes things work. There's also people with agendas and audiences who target SE cause it's at least culturally significant. Even they can be right at times. We do need to balance between the loud external voices telling us what to do and the risk of basically never listening to anyone but insiders. – Journeyman Geek Jun 30 at 22:32
  • @fbueckert it's worth noting the number of people who agreed with that post. If so many of the don't want to listen to us when we tell them how SO works (and no, you can't expect them to inherently know that), then we're probably doing something wrong. We can't ignore outside opinions completely just because they're voiced by people who violate our ideology. – Chair Jul 1 at 4:44
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  • Funny. Singapore has strict laws on littering. Signs about fines, community service. Signs telling people not to litter are good. Summarily shooting litterbugs in the knee... less so. – Journeyman Geek Jul 1 at 14:27
  • My problem with the article is that it called all our rule-enforcers 'trolls', which is ironic. It reflects the author's closed mindset and lack of understanding (and lack of attempts to understand). But that's what potentially good new users may be reading, and they won't know how trashy the article is. By providing less incentive for people to write such rants, we can ensure a steady, productive growth of the high-quality population of the SE user base. Our inability to even notice this epitomizes the already-perfect-don't-tell-me-what-to-do state that outsiders see as the bane of SO. – Chair Jul 1 at 15:13
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    @Chair If someone wants us to change, ranting about it elsewhere and cherry picking examples to make their point smacks of dishonesty. Acknowledging them just validates their argument. If users want to change SE, they have to work with us, not rant into the void with strawman and misunderstandings. – fbueckert Jul 1 at 15:35
  • @fbueckert We all agree that the author of that post is crazy, so you need to drop that point. Outsiders do not know that it is a bad post. I'm acknowledging that the author's point exists and is popular. That isn't supporting him in any way. We need to change SE, but not in the manner suggested by John Slegers. We need to change things to stop the creation of specimens like him. Saying "People not understanding SE are not worth considering" is just burying your head in the sand. He's upset and completely wrong, but it may very well be so because we rubbed him the wrong way to begin with. – Chair Jul 1 at 15:50
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    @Chair We can't drop that point because it's central to the entire problem. Anyone who agrees with his article is irrelevant to SE. If they want to work with us, then work with us. Clicking an anonymous agree button on it does absolutely nothing. I actually had a discussion with John right after that welcoming blog. He dug in and refused to acknowledge anything that didn't agree with him. So, no, it's not burying my head in the sand. It's actively discounting his entire stance. – fbueckert Jul 1 at 16:00
  • @fbueckert We can drop the point because almost everyone agrees he's nuts. He's wrong, but there's a reason why he holds such a misguided (IMO) opinion. His stance is wrong, he hurls unjustified insults and even misuses his most prolific insult: troll, but he still represents an opinion that's out there. (On a side note, you should look at his other articles. All are a similar vein). I don't see a valid objection to the claim that John Slegers is telling a lot of people a lot of bad things about us. If follows clearly that we don't want such characters to exist. – Chair Jul 1 at 16:07
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    I was actually considering a series of events revolving around twitter. Funny thing was what I was thinking was "ugh, this might cause people to circle the wagons, which is exactly the opposite of what a healthy community needs to do" which is what a few folk seem to be advocating – Journeyman Geek Jul 2 at 4:20

Based on my observations, it is more like the opposite: SE is not giving enough attention to the “be nice”-policy.

It has been almost six years while I observe them trying and I've seen about handful their attempts but things only seem to get worse (not much worse mind you but still). Quoting self,

how come that after years of plugging users' mouths and twisting their arms with summers of love and hunting the snark, the second-highest-voted question at MSO is Why is Stack Overflow so negative of late?

Frankly these repetitive fruitless crusades for nicety start more and more looking like smokescreen serving sole purpose to pretend that they care. I would very much appreciate if they put more effort and achieve real improvements at last.

From this perspective your idea of giving users effective tools to stop the flood of poorly researched questions* looks worth pursuing. The sad thing is, it seems to be quite effort consuming and difficult to get right, and because of that I am really unsure if SE considers matters of keeping the network nice serious enough to invest effort into stuff like that.

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    The question here is about the present, not past. True, in the past they gave it zero attention, and they admitted that was a mistake. So saying "it was bad in the past" is just unfair and not really related to the question. – Shadow Wizard Jul 2 at 11:16
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    @ShadowWizard as of now I haven't seen any substantial differences with how it was in the past, that makes me feel that this essentially repeats what was before. As for your note about attention, I don't get it, per my experience these matters have always been getting a lot of it, this time it doesn't look much different – gnat Jul 2 at 12:09
  • You said "SE is not giving enough attention". That is true, in the past. Now they give lots of attention, which has yet to bring actual changes. We're still not there though. – Shadow Wizard Jul 2 at 12:21
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    @ShadowWizard it seems to be getting about the same attention now as I've seen in the past and based on that past efforts didn't work I assume it is not enough, they need to try harder if they want to really improve things – gnat Jul 2 at 12:24
  • You mean "Summer of love" etc? I don't recall it being accompanied with blog posts and actual change in code of conduct. (That will lead to punishments for those not obeying it, being more than just recommendation.) – Shadow Wizard Jul 2 at 12:25
  • @ShadowWizard yeah they didn't try this yet. They tried a lot of other things in prior "iterations" and all these things looked different and none of it worked. And based on that I don't expect that this new invention will work where all of their prior attempts failed (I would be more than happy to be proven wrong this time, I guess we'll have to just wait and see) – gnat Jul 2 at 12:33
  • Well, this time they have external eyes looking their every step, and they can't just let it evaporate like before. Something will happen, good or bad we can't know. – Shadow Wizard Jul 2 at 12:41
  • @ShadowWizard I don't understand what you mean talking about external eyes, sorry. As I wrote to me it doesn't look much different from their past attempts – gnat Jul 2 at 12:43
  • Google "april wensel stack overflow" (without quotes) to see what I mean. That's what sparked this whole thing, and since then I suspect many others with high influence started to follow this "situation" on twitter, so it is not limited to one person anymore. That's what I meant. – Shadow Wizard Jul 2 at 12:45
  • @ShadowWizard I see, thanks for explaining. I am aware of that "april wensel" thing and I don't expect it to make any meaningful difference. Guess we'll have to just wait and see – gnat Jul 2 at 12:52
  • Put a reminder to visit those comments in one year, we'll see. :) – Shadow Wizard Jul 2 at 13:00
  • in one year we will likely have yet another battle-for-niceness and I will be again accused of referring to the past in discussions about present @ShadowWizard :) – gnat Jul 2 at 13:19
  • nah.... the gap is bigger. And pretty sure the project currently rolling will still be on the roll, somehow. – Shadow Wizard Jul 2 at 13:53

Why is SE giving so much attention to the “be nice”-policy?

I'd say that a significant number of people believe that the "be nice" policy threatens to lower quality by being soft on bad question askers, and by making it harder for moderators/answerers to enforce "the rules". Enforcing rules and maintaining quality does not have to be mutually exclusive with "being nice".

I really like reading comments, and don't consider them to be "second class citizens" at all. Having read all the comments on this page, I've noticed a recurrent stance: that being nice isn't going to be this magic bullet which solves all our problems, and that we should focus our effort elsewhere on a more promising course of action. The flaw in that line of reasoning is that being nice is the end product of some process that requires a constant expenditure of energy and consumes an unreasonable amount of the limited resources at our disposal.

Ahem, being good natured does not sink energy, it sources it! A good deed is its own reward; perhaps a bit corny, but if examined and embraced is ultimately very powerful.

This backlash I've noticed may in part be due to phrase "be nice" itself. The word nice doesn't bother me, but sometimes it has the connotation of being soft or lacking in resolve. "Nice" has an unappealing tone when use in the phrase "nice guys finish last". I don't recall hearing anything uncomplimentary about the term "civility". I think that having a "be civil" policy would be more neutral and palatable than "be nice", given the prevalence of self-centered haughty attitudes today. To clarify, I'm not suggesting that this attitude characterizes us (the SE community), but that it affects us.

Another school of resistance that gets support is that we are at war with an endless sea of solution mongers who will ultimately overwhelm us with their growing ranks of henchmen, and that we must deliver some massive blow to their nerve center that sends them scurrying once and for all. This makes it easy to dismiss "being nice" as an inadequate defense given the scope of the threat. Let's not forget the story (fable, was it?) of the tortoise and the hare. Slow and steady wins the race. Kill 'em with kindness. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em. Niceness might be a lightweight compared to this behemoth we face, but why not just dust off what we already have lying around and steadily build at a sustainable rate. Keep brainstorming one morsel at a time. And don't be surprised at who shows up for dinner.

After reading all of the answers, I'm a bit disappointed at the unity. It seems like all the answers came from the same team. One might conclude that we're all in agreement. Why haven't any of the commenters who have expressed opposing viewpoints tried to reach a larger audience on the stage that answers provide?

P.S. I find it interesting that the lowest rated answer here got the highest volume of comments. I wonder if motivation behind the production of these comments is coming from the same place that is "giving so much attention to the “be nice”-policy".

  • Welcome to this thread! Yes, among other things it became a place to vent frustrations. But, I hope you agree, this is one of the best places to air those. Personally, I have been gained a lot of perspective from this discussion. Most of it is, ach, so familiar from math meta. Some of it is new to me. I don't regret posting, but now I would use a different comparison. – Jyrki Lahtonen Jul 1 at 12:28
  • "Yes, among other things it became a place to vent frustrations." What is the "it" you're referring to? – user394802 Jul 1 at 13:45
  • I referred to "this thread" in Meta.SE, – Jyrki Lahtonen Jul 1 at 14:56
  • Thanks, being brand new to Meta, things like "welcome" , "discussion", and "vent" had me a bit off balance (taking the tour took the edge off my confusion). As far as your use of a different comparison, I like the one you used. It seems to me that it really got the conversational ball rolling. – user394802 Jul 2 at 6:34

My experience as a user and a moderator seems to have been somewhat different from yours. This all resonates with me as crucial work.

I have seen negative attitudes, ranging from put-downs with questionably plausible deniability, to snark, to rudeness, to blatant hostility, directed at all kinds of people, all the way from brand new people, to people who've found their footing, to sites' longest-active members. It's not just new users that bring out the worst in us.

Sure, there are certainly issues with low-effort, poorly researched questions (and answers!), whatever the specific variety. I truly do believe that efforts related to Be Nice can help here, whether it's coaxing a new user into the community, or providing feedback in a way a post author can comfortably hear and act on, or simply avoiding escalating ugly situations. And I do also believe that there are other promising ways to address, as evidenced by all the meta discussion across the history of the network. I'm happy to see effort spent on those.

But there are also issues with being nice, being friendly, being kind. These issues are also well worth addressing. And honestly, I think we've all dropped the ball on this a bit, including me. I've posted and discussed my fair share of bug reports and feature requests, all those ideas for how to improve various technical and UI aspects of the site, and I've seen plenty of more of that from others in chat and on meta. I've seen and participated in huge discussions of the minutiae of what is and isn't on-topic, of the best thing to do about one single post. But there's been relatively little simply about how to better live up to what's always been a core value: being good to each other.

This work is hard, but it also really, truly matters. It affects who decides to go beyond their initial efforts to joining the community; it affects who sticks with it long-term and who leaves. The more issues we sweep under the rug, the more good people we lose. The more welcoming and fulfilling of an environment we build, the better off we all are.

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    "I truly do believe that efforts related to Be Nice can help here" How will being nice help reduce the amount of low-effort trash that gets posted? The thing you have to remember is that there is an endless sea of people who just want help out there. Whether we're nice or rude, that tide will crash against these shores. We're not going to magically transform them into reasonable posters who can think and debug for themselves. That's not to say that being nice is wrong; it's just not going to solve that problem. – Nicol Bolas Jun 30 at 1:53
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    @NicolBolas I said it could help, not magically fix everything. It increases the likelihood of things being salvaged, and it also decreases the likelihood of things devolving into drama that consumes far too much of people's time. Increasing the number of new users who join the community also increases the amount of community moderation time available. And of course, the point of my answer is that this is overall an important effort to pursue, not that low-quality questions aren't an issue. – Cascabel Jun 30 at 1:58
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    "It increases the likelihood of things being salvaged" Taking the time to salvage something takes time away from questions that don't need to be salvaged. Why should we spend time on crap when we could spend time on good questions? "it also decreases the likelihood of things devolving into drama that consumes far too much of people's time" So does downvoting, voting to close, and moving on without comment. But some people will consider that rude. – Nicol Bolas Jun 30 at 2:02
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    Questions aren't divided into crap and obviously fine questions, and new users are not divided into lost causes and immediately positive contributors. Yes, there are of course cases where it's not worth bothering. (Note also that I mentioned "avoiding escalating ugly situations". Given a choice between not-nice comments, and just silently voting to close, the latter is preferable.) But there are also plenty of cases where we're not as nice as we could be and it would make a positive difference to the community. And again: this isn't just about crap. It's about being kind in general. – Cascabel Jun 30 at 2:05
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    If you don't enjoy working with a user to improve their question, don't do it. It's supposed to be fun, not a job. Other people who do enjoy teaching can work on that or those questions can fade into the background or they can be handled by people on review queues or silent close votes. I would like to see a discussion of whether aspects of the implementation of of gamification are creating incentives for not niceness. – Elin Jun 30 at 3:29
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    @Elin that's the thing, we don't enjoy it, but it is shoved in our faces, since there's no way to show only those questions that we enjoy. It takes effort to: read the titles, read the body of the question, evaluating the question and deciding what to do. Remember that only when you evaluate the question you would notice that is crap, and there's the sunken cost of having already done the effort on the previous steps. It's irrational ask the people that already spend their time and energy to not do get frustrated because they did something they didn't enjoy. – Braiam Jul 1 at 14:27
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    Does feeling frustrated make you feel good, if not, just skim and walk on by rather than invest more time in it. Does being rude actually make you feel good? I really doubt that venting adds to your enjoyment of life or using the site. – Elin Jul 1 at 14:33
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    @Elin: Venting is called "venting" for a reason; it allows a release of pressure and tension. It's not about adding enjoyment; it's about releasing anger and frustration at having one's time wasted. Even "skimming" takes time, and having that time wasted is helpful to nobody. – Nicol Bolas Jul 2 at 2:29
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    It's indeed sometimes helpful to vent, but who we vent to matters. If it's someone who's interested in listening to and supporting us, that's great. If we're expressing your frustration to the object of that frustration to make ourselves feel better, we're putting our needs and wishes above theirs. We don't do that here. The policy isn't Be Nice, Unless It Feels Good Not To Be. – Cascabel Jul 2 at 3:28
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    If being on SE makes you feel so angry, I'd suggest taking a break for a bit. Or find something on SE besides reading new questions. It's a hobby. It should feel good or at least satisfying. Also, venting should be done with people you know and trust, it is not the same as yelling at the person making you angry. psychologytoday.com/us/blog/evolution-the-self/201404/… – Elin Jul 2 at 7:51

I'm fine with being polite to everyone. But if I went to the CDC because I had a stomach ache, I'd be politely told to see my personal physician first. Important facilities and important people have polite but firm gatekeepers. Could we not have something similar here?

Stack Exchange has a reputation system that rewards contributions to the site and offers privileges to those who contribute more. One of those privileges could be that high rep users could opt not to be confronted by unfiltered questions. For example, if a question has fewer than N upvotes, then it is invisible. Each high rep user gets to choose her own value of N. There are other cutoff possibilities, such as the cumulative score or the number of downvotes.

Hide answers from bad questions

If bad questions still get answers, there is little incentive for questioners to write better ones.

To be more specific the idea is that in questions that are likely low quality(new user/low reputation user) the answers are automatically hidden and only shown if they are determined to be good questions(upvotes?/reviewed?)

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    This seems like a potentially interesting idea, but I'm not really sure of all the details, and it seems like it would do a lot better if posted as a separate feature request in its own right with a lot of the ins and outs worked out already. – Nathan Tuggy Jun 30 at 8:55
  • This idea gained some support in Math meta. However, a type 2 user only needs to see an answer for a few seconds to copy it. So this needs an alert diamond bearer. May be SO has enough of those? At Math.SE we don't. We have timezone gaps between moderators and not enough people to begin with. Deletion of answers may affect type 3 users, but not all our moderators are sold on the need of such measures :-( – Jyrki Lahtonen Jun 30 at 9:29
  • What is a bad question in this context? – Journeyman Geek Jun 30 at 22:36

I think you're making a common mistake that even art museum curators make, from time to time: forgetting why we're here.

Stack Exchange sites aren't here for us to have a nice pretty museum that has a lot of things we like in it. They're here for the users, those folks who come and ask questions. And while some of "us" do ask questions, for the most part the "established SE users" are the answerers, not the askers. The way we get new questions is by getting new users.

Imagine a museum curator whose taste is a bit behind the times, and is making a nice museum that they like, and insulting the tastes of the "new" people who don't like their exhibits; soon enough the number of new visitors drops to the point the museum closes.

We need a site that fits what the potential new users need. It needs to be welcoming. It needs to cater to their needs, be that by finding ways to help them ask better questions, or adapting to what questions they want to ask.

This doesn't mean we abandon all hopes of quality, nor does it mean we don't protect our nice exhibits. What it means, though, is that our attitude has to be positive. We have to think "how do we get these new users to stay here and contribute useful information" rather than "how do we get rid of these annoying new users". How, in fact, do we change StackExchange for the better, to suit the changing needs of its customer/user base?

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    The site you're describing is not why I come here. I come here to provide answers to good questions. If catering to the needs of new users turns this site into a place that isn't about answering good questions, then the site has lost its way. We aren't here to be what any user needs; we're here to provide a useful resource. We don't help people. We help the Internet by creating useful information. We should not forget this. – Nicol Bolas Jun 29 at 16:42
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    "The site you're describing, unfortunately, is one that won't create useful information for very long." It's managed to do so for nearly 10 years now. "I'm not suggesting abandon quality or anything else" The rules that new users chaffe against are the rules that preserve our quality. So yes, if we want more new users, we have to abandon our quality standards. – Nicol Bolas Jun 29 at 16:55
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    @Joe If gathering new users are more important than maintaining quality, then we're no better than the forums SE was created to replace. – fbueckert Jun 29 at 17:00
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    @Joe We do pay attention to them. But they need to adapt to the community they're entering. We can certainly be more welcoming. But all too often, new users see enforcing quality as rude, or unwelcoming. That's the point Nicol and I are making. Enforcing quality is very often the very problem new users have, and we can't make those users happy while doing so. If making them happy is the goal, the logical conclusion is we do so at the expense of quality. – fbueckert Jun 29 at 17:05
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    You can enforce quality without being rude... – Joe Jun 29 at 17:07
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    @Joe And I'm saying it's not rude. It's literally the purpose of SE, to curate and maintain a high quality repository of knowledge. In your quest to welcome more users, you'd throw our quality standards out the window. – fbueckert Jun 29 at 17:12
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    @Joe: "That's certainly being rude." And removing the ability of us to remove bad questions would destroy the quality of the site. "is this what I'd do if a neighbor or a person at work asked the same question?" But we're not at work, nor are we in a neighbor's house. Your analogy is therefore irrelevant. We are on Stack Overflow, and the expectations for user behavior and question quality are set. – Nicol Bolas Jun 29 at 17:16
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    @NicolBolas So what's wrong with just using it? My understanding is that all that these discussions have been about is using more comments like that and fewer comments with snark. But people are resisting that sort of recommendation, and I'm trying to understand why. I don't think that downvoting and close voting are rude - they're essential. – HDE 226868 Jun 29 at 17:20
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    @Joe No, it absolutely is not. There are several orders of magnitude more new users than there are curators. What you are proposing does not scale in any sense. New users have the same resources as anybody else, the very ones you linked to. If they don't have the, "civility" to read that, why are they entitled to more from us? – fbueckert Jun 29 at 17:24
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    @Joe: "It's rude to simply downvote and close, without anything else, for the same reason ignoring a person asking you in person is." Welcome to the dichotomy between quality and kindness. If you force users to have to comment in order to downvote or close vote, then there will be fewer down/clode votes and/or more snarky comments. You reduce the ability of us to moderate the site. Thus reducing quality. – Nicol Bolas Jun 29 at 17:24
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    @Joe I think you need to read Opimizing for Pearls, not Sand – fbueckert Jun 29 at 17:26
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    @NicolBolas I think you need to stop saying "we" and start saying "I". As Rand put it a couple days ago, anyone who isn't keen about this doesn't have to comment. There are other people who will do it. You don't speak for everyone on SO, and you don't speak for everyone on the network. And neither do I. – HDE 226868 Jun 29 at 17:29
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    @HDE226868: That has nothing to do with what I said. I'm talking about making comments that, to us appear to be within the "be nice" policy, but are still moderated, through no fault of our own. – Nicol Bolas Jun 29 at 17:31
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    @Joe Except they don't all have different opinions. I, for one, agree with him. The masses all agreeing doesn't automatically mean they're right, either; if that were true, we would've abolished downvoting a long time ago, because we get that feature request on a regular basis. And if you want to appeal to the masses, well, just look at your net score. More disagree than agree. Is there any chance you might have the wrong idea? – fbueckert Jun 29 at 18:17
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    @Joe: "If all of the other users have a different opinion on how to run the site than you..." A lot of people have lots of bad ideas all the time. That's why we have rules in place to protect the system from their bad ideas. The tyranny of the majority is still a tyranny; the best defense against that is a well-defined set of principles that keeps us from degenerating into being ruled by a mob. – Nicol Bolas Jun 29 at 18:53

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