Stack Overflow for sure is a class act. What are the downsides of Stack Overflow that you are aware of?

10 Answers 10


Maybe it's wrong of me to attempt a serious answer, but one of the biggest shortcomings of the SO model, in my mind, is that it doesn't have an effective way to do troubleshooting. I've seen a lot of questions along the lines of "Why is this code block resulting in $SOME_FRAMEWORK crashing?" Often these require a multi-step process to diagnose, but there is no good way to do this.

  1. It's hard to establish a conversation with the OP that allows both sides to be notified of new information from the other person. This results in conversations that take far longer than they should, or even get forgotten.

  2. It's incredibly difficult for a third party to follow any such conversation. Thus you lose a bunch of potential resources to resolve your problem.

  3. If questions or answers are edited as part of this conversation, it leaves other answers and comments behind. At worst they appear patently wrong, but they often become redundant, seem off-base, or appear to be non-sequiturs.

What's the solution to this? I don't know. Better abilities to track questions and answers you're interested in would help, but ultimately I just don't know if such problems will ever really fit within the SO domain.

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    Google wave? :) – SurDin Jul 7 '09 at 13:42
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    I would say a) comments for "conversation" and b) edits for updates to the question, based on those comments, followed by c) answers – Jeff Atwood Jul 7 '09 at 14:33
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    @Jeff: That is still pretty horrible in practice. We have to just face facts that the SO engine is simply not the best tool for troubleshooting. It is best used with definitive questions/answers. – GEOCHET Jul 7 '09 at 14:40
  • @Jeff: If I could be updated to new comments/updates to questions and answers I don't own, this might almost be a passable way for two people to communicate. But that still doesn't make it any less opaque for a third-party. When you have to look at question and answer edit times and how long ago comments were left to understand the flow of the conversation, it's just not any good. The question is, should it be any good, or should that sort of thing be left to a forum, where chronology is about all they get right. – Hilarious Comedy Pesto Jul 7 '09 at 14:46
  • chronology only matters for a brief time during the 'conversation', while having a well-organized "final" summary matters forever. – Jeff Atwood Jul 7 '09 at 15:57
  • That doesn't make SO any better for holding said conversation, nor for generating a summarized chronology at resolution. Trying to troubleshoot on SO is like trying to read a book where all the odd pages have been put in one binder and the even have been put in another, and each time you set the book down, more pages may or may not be added to either binder. I think what I should take away from your comments is that SO is never going to be an efficient way to solve such problems. – Hilarious Comedy Pesto Jul 7 '09 at 16:11
  • @Jeff: I can recall getting downvoted for a correct answer to a question that changed after my answer. Moreover, I received a comment that a guy said: "I'm amazed for blah blah you mentioned about the question as there's no such thing in the OP and it has no edit history" (it had been changed so soon it by its author that the edit was merged to the original revision). – xmm0 Jul 7 '09 at 20:19


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    I was going to answer "Rich B", myself :) – Jeff Atwood Jul 7 '09 at 12:19
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    @Rich B: succinct and direct, +1; @Jeff: play nice! – Marc Gravell Jul 7 '09 at 12:19
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    @Jeff: without him, SO would be like answers.yahoo.com – xmm0 Jul 7 '09 at 12:31

Downvotes without explanation. Too often people will down-vote your question/answer without telling you why. You're left with no explanation, no name, and no direction towards fixing whatever it was that they were upset with. It is my opinion that this is in no way helpful to anybody, and in fact may discourage many people from even attempting to participate.

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    Anonymous voting is the best part of SO. Why people can't understand anonymous voting is beyond me. – GEOCHET Jul 7 '09 at 12:24
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    Rich, note, I clarified it with "sans explanation." In my opinion, a down-vote without explanation is worthless, and does nobody any good. – Sampson Jul 7 '09 at 12:26
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    @Jon: And that is why I believe that you don't understand the voting system at all. – GEOCHET Jul 7 '09 at 12:34
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    @Rich B: Downvotes in and of themselves do nothing to help somebody improve their answer. Anonymous downvoting just leads to confusion and a misunderstanding of what, if anything, is wrong with an answer. I want to make my answer as good as possible, and if it gets downvoted without an explanation, I'm left with nothing to go on. Please consider that it's not voting for Congress, we're trying to provide canonical answers. I find that insisting on anonymity completely invalidates a downvote all together. It's cowardly and perhaps an admission of incompetence, as well. – Eric Jul 7 '09 at 13:20
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    @Eric: The purpose of down votes is not to help anybody but the uninformed reader separate the good and bad answers. Reading any more into it is just wrong. – GEOCHET Jul 7 '09 at 13:23
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    @Rich, without an explanation there's nothing to suggest an answer is good or bad. People aren't altruistic autonomous voting machines. They down-vote for numerous reasons. – Sampson Jul 7 '09 at 13:29
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    @Jonathon: And if they choose to share that with you, that is a bonus. Otherwise voting should be anonymous and as low friction as possible to promote voting (regardless of up or down). – GEOCHET Jul 7 '09 at 13:36
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    @Rich: The purpose is absolutely to help the reader separate the good from the bad, but why wouldn't you try to improve the bad? The answerer obviously thought it was the correct answer. A vote doesn't tell them what it is. I read no more into the voting than you do, but I do expect more from an informed person who downvotes to help improve the answer. I've learned a lot from downvotes (e.g.-"OR" is handled horrendously by the SQL Server compiler--didn't know that before!). The only reason to not give people help on a Q&A site is because you feel it's more important to criticize than critique. – Eric Jul 7 '09 at 13:46
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    @Rich Downvoting answers (or questions) without explanation helps nobody. The mere fact that something has been downvoted doesn't mean it was wrong, poorly written, etc. I can downvote all of your answers, but that doesn't help the asker to see they are all wrong. Do you see our point? Unless you expose your motive, you help nobody. Not even the asker. – Sampson Jul 7 '09 at 14:24
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    @Rich: How am I supposed to edit the answer if I don't know what's wrong with it? – Eric Jul 7 '09 at 14:29
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    @Rich, Unless you know the motive behind the downvote. The downvote is pointless and helps nobody. I'll leave it at that. – Sampson Jul 7 '09 at 14:36
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    @Rich: Often a downvote comes when I'm the top answer, the only answer, or even the accepted answer. How am I supposed to know then? While a downvote doesn't always have to end in a comment, if there's nothing for the user go on why his/her answer is wrong, then a comment is warranted. – Eric Jul 7 '09 at 14:40
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    @Eric It's not worth it man. He's not going to get it. – Sampson Jul 7 '09 at 14:55
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    Downvoting without an explanation (unless there are obvious reasons, like the poster/questioner is being arrogant/insulting/etc) hould be allowed but discouraged. It's a cowardly act, like anonymously throwing stones. – Jason S Jul 7 '09 at 15:47
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    @Jason: Apparently you take a down vote way too seriously then. – GEOCHET Jul 7 '09 at 16:03

Rich B.

(What the hell, I have a sense of humor too)

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    Rich B isn't a downside of SO, he's a downside of life. – Hilarious Comedy Pesto Jul 7 '09 at 12:36
  • @Pesto: Hey, you have /my/ vote! – GEOCHET Jul 7 '09 at 13:24
  • Be nice, @Presto, especially if he's taking the trouble to laugh at himself. – Nathan Fellman Jul 7 '09 at 13:28
  • @Nathan: Humor detector broken much? – GEOCHET Jul 7 '09 at 13:30

Expiration of answers. For certain types of questions, the "best" answer may change over time and the StackOverflow model doesn't quite capture or allow for that.

For example, let's say I asked "What is the standard way to manage DB persistence in Java?" back in 2000. At the time, the best answer might have been EJB (gulp). Today, the best answer is probably Hibernate. (Tomorrow, who knows?)

In this situation, users relying on StackOverflow to answer the question may be misled! The best answers should be voted up over time, but if the initial best answer got a lot of votes, then it may be difficult for subsequent votes to overcome that initial surge.

How do we account for this? Is there a way to revisit questions where the best answer has clearly expired? Is there a way to value more recent votes over votes that are several years old?

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    I would say that a new question is required - "In 2000 EJB was the standard way ... What is the best way today?" – Anthony K Sep 29 '10 at 7:59

The downsides? Oh, there are many unintended side-effects of the the StackOverflow system.

One of the stated goals was to be "wiki-like"; that is to say, there is the intention that good answers will float to the top, and that over time, answers will converge toward "the truth".

Unfortunately, the karma system works against this. The "fastest gun in the west" problem is well known; early answers get up-voted far more frequently than later answers, and generally speaking, the first semi-correct answer rises to the top, over the more accurate and complete answers that come later.

In addition, points are given for asking and answering questions, not for editing and refining existing questions and answers. So, the system is constantly generating more and more noise.

Think, for a moment, if instead of editing a page, Wikipedia allowed each user to add another page for the same topic. You'd have a zillion pages on each subject, and it would be difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Unfortunately, I don't have any good suggestions for amending the incentives to reward the desired behavior; but the disadvantages to the current system should be examined.

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    I agree to this. I myself would try editing more, if I got 2 points for every edit (that was more than say 20 characters). – Shahbaz Nov 12 '12 at 17:44

Proprietary code.

-- rms

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    facepalm facepalm – GEOCHET Jul 7 '09 at 12:25
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    @Rich B: You are giving away your soul to Satan by letting your comments get into a M$ SQL Server DB. Beware! – xmm0 Jul 7 '09 at 12:26

From the FAQ: You can answer and ask questions to your heart's content as an anonymous user

The fact that "anyone" can post a question is a weakness in my opinion. I'm seeing more & more "homework questions", not the cool/challenging/interesting ones, but rather the inane questions.

When I see a "hit & run" question like "why won't my program compile" (let's say due to a case mismatch in a variable name) or "what does += do in this C program" I feel that it dilutes the quality of the content.

Sure, questions can be downvoted & closed, etc... but I'd be happier if I never had to see such questions.

Maybe the admins have a point though, now that I think about it... Why clog the system with 100s of 1000s of registered users who will only ever ask 1 question...

I don't know if the answer is forcing registration, having some type of "posting probationary period" or what... but I fear that as word spreads, the signal to noise ratio on SO will go down.

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    We encourage and want newbies. – GEOCHET Jul 7 '09 at 13:25
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    @Rich B: I don't buy the encourage part, coming from you :) – Vinko Vrsalovic Jul 7 '09 at 16:16
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    @Vinko: Not sure where you get that, but I am an outspoken advocate of newbie questions, and most of my edits are directed to helping newbies. But oh well. – GEOCHET Jul 7 '09 at 16:59


Especially the fun tag :)


Popular questions and answers (I'm especially referring to humor) get upvoted a lot more than advanced, technically challenging questions/answers. I do enjoy it myself, too, but very skillful q&a should be awarded more than funny one-liners, imo. The difficult stuff, which should be exposed more, gets suffocated.

  • It would be nice to have "moderators' pick" set of favorite questions... (like those mentioned in StackOverflow Podcast) – Jakub Narębski Jul 8 '09 at 11:00

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