Quick review

There's been much ado over the last 5 years or so about the SE network being "unwelcoming".

From the summer of love to the code of conduct, from the welcome wagon to the instantaneous delisting of IPS from the HNQ because of a complaint on Twitter, there's been an enormous and ongoing effort from Stack Exchange to make the site more welcoming.

And there's been an equally enormous amount of drama on MSE (and other Metas) about these efforts.

Commentary on comments

Most recently, Stack Exchange has focused on comments as the principal source of the perceived unwelcoming atmosphere.

And they ran a well-constructed experiment to test this hypothesis. And now the results are in.

Net-net, more than 95% of all comments are considered totally fine. Less than 5% are considered "unwelcoming", and a negligible number are considered "abusive"¹. There is a high-level of inter-user agreement on these ratings. Agreement is unaffected, mostly, by reputation.

Welcome, one and all

Which makes me wonder: is there a problem to be solved here in the first place? Is Stack Exchange, despite all the drama, brouhaha, and blog posts, not actually unwelcoming after all?

Or maybe the recent focus on comments was the wrong target to aim for? If that's the case, we'd have to look somewhere else. Are we going to analyze, say, downvotes, closevotes², flags, next?

I have my own views on these matters, but I'd like to hear yours. I'd particularly like answers representing different classes of users, in particular from SE employees, from CMs, from non-CM mods, and from regular users (both high-rep and new).

¹ The linked blog presents these numbers with a lot more clarity, context, and detail. But for the sake of this MSE post, I needed to condense the results into a single number. I did that by taking the average rating weighted by the number of raters, to approximate the score the comments would get if you plucked a random guy off the street and didn't know if he were an SE employee, a moderator, a high-rep user, a new user, someone who had never heard of SE before, etc.

² Actually, SO did run an experiment aimed at analyzing closures, Project Reduplication of Deduplication. But while the meta community saw this as a refreshing breath of air on investing in AI-powered tools to help automate some of the grunt work of curation, it turned out that SE's interest in the project was to help identify false duplicates.
This suggests that SE thinks closures might be contributing to the perception of being unwelcoming, and are looking for ways to mitigate that.

  • 36
    If 99+% of posts on these sites aren't spam, should we stop worrying about spam? Everyone involved knew that the percentage of comments that people find abusive or unwelcoming in some way would be small, but insults can have a disproportionate impact. 99 people can compliment you, but it's the one who insults you that you dwell on. 5% of a very large number of comments is still a lot of comments that people have trouble with. Commented Dec 4, 2018 at 20:50
  • In our "well-constructed experiment" we asked ourselves what we think of ourselves, but what percentage were those whom were actually the target. Including stats from 'approved rude flags' would include the person whom claimed to be affected. Over at other sites (YouTube) it's the wild west, yet there are few blogs about it being unwelcoming - they do have 'user blocking' (and flagging) while our blocking is either semi-automatic/automatic or Mod approved. Perhaps YouTube attracts thicker skinned people, they certainly can't say each video is a polished gem (neither by views nor votes).
    – Rob
    Commented Dec 4, 2018 at 20:52
  • 52
    @BradLarson That’s a flawed analogy, because yes, if 99%+ of posts are not spam, then we don’t have a spam problem. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t invest somewhat in tools to fight the remainder, but it does mean we wouldn’t need to write dozens of blog posts, scores of Meta questions, change the legal terms of a site, etc, to combat spam. And “a large number” is always relative. Here, the “larger number of bad comments” is large relative to the number of Ferraris I own, but small next to the astronomical number of non-bad comments.
    – Dan Bron
    Commented Dec 4, 2018 at 20:54
  • 15
    @DanBron - Even with a tiny fraction of posts being spam, a lot of effort is still being put into finding and destroying it. I'll put it another way: 1 out of 20 comments in the survey were rated as being unwelcoming. How many comments, on average, do typical questions receive on a Stack Exchange site? Let's say that's 5. That means that you have a roughly 1 in 4 chance of getting an objectionable comment on any given question you ask. How many posts until you're guaranteed to be insulted? Commented Dec 4, 2018 at 21:27
  • 9
    @BradLarson I think we risk too much by trying to take a summary of a summary of data and use it to project. For example, in your math, you ignore distribution. I could equally well say that "only 1 in 20 users ever gets a negative comment". Neither of these analytics are true, and we shouldn't base any discussion on them. Re the spam analogy: I said we should invest in tools to combat the remainder, and you pointed out we are. We're aligned on that. But the investment has to be commensurate with the scale of the problem.
    – Dan Bron
    Commented Dec 4, 2018 at 21:31
  • 19
    @BradLarson And yet you can't really say, "SO is a site just full of spam". Yes, a lot of work is put into preventing and dealing with spam. New proposals to deal with it, that don't have significant negative side effects for the community, are more than welcome. Likewise, SO puts lots of effort into making users feel welcome, and new proposals to help even more people feel even more welcome are great, so long as they don't come with problematic side effects that cause more problems than they solve.
    – Servy
    Commented Dec 4, 2018 at 22:27
  • 22
    @BradLarson The problems arise when SO starts making changes that have major negative side effects to try to mitigate a problem that already has many effective solutions mitigating it's impact, and to which the further changes cause way more harm than their benefits.
    – Servy
    Commented Dec 4, 2018 at 22:29
  • 3
    95% of comments being fine means that 1 in 20 are not, and that's quite a large amount of comments. And when a single unwelcoming comment has the potential to turn away a potential long-term contributor, well, it should be reduced. Commented Dec 5, 2018 at 1:28
  • 17
    Follow-up question: If 5% isn't good enough, how low does that percentage need to be? How far do we go to squash that number, and at what cost?
    – user245382
    Commented Dec 5, 2018 at 2:19
  • 9
    "There is a high-level of inter-user agreement on these ratings." No, there really isn't. The blog itself says the "alpha" only goes as high as ~0.3 for employees, while social scientists look for at least 0.8 for significance. That's like saying p<0.1 is a "strongly" significant result. It's not even significant at all. Commented Dec 5, 2018 at 6:51
  • 2
    @BradLarson "A lot of effort" is perhaps a misnomer considering charcoal is comprised of a few dozen people at best vs hundreds of thousands of network users most of whom (even most moderators!) don't get exposed to spam nearly ever.
    – Magisch
    Commented Dec 5, 2018 at 10:48
  • 4
    What is even more interesting from those results is that the more involved in SE people are, the more negative they rate the friendliness of the comments. So you might be led to believe that the new users are the least bothered by unwelcoming comments while being the primary target of all the recent efforts. Commented Dec 5, 2018 at 15:21
  • 10
    I certainly wouldn't call the comment experiment "well-constructed". It had several major and obvious flaws; it only sampled non-flagged, non-deleted comments, all without proper context. It also didn't give appropriate response options for those participating in the experiment... it's akin to asking a customer "do you love us or do you really love us?"
    – TylerH
    Commented Dec 5, 2018 at 15:23
  • 9
    As a followup - the survey could've been made much more effective by also prompting participants to describe each time they marked a comment as unwelcoming why they felt so. In other words, until we get a more holistic understanding of peoples' problems, we will just be shooting in the dark trying to fix the issue.
    – TylerH
    Commented Dec 5, 2018 at 15:31
  • 6
    Remember that 5% is unwelcoming, which doesn't necessarily mean rude or abusive, just not exactly ideal. We certainly don't have a problem when significantly under 1% of comments are actually abusive. Commented Dec 16, 2018 at 2:47

11 Answers 11


I was once at a festival with some friends. Somebody camping across the road from us was being a disruptive jerk, and I commented negatively about it to a friend. The friend said to me: "there are 10,000 people here. If only 1% of the population is jerks, that's still 100 people."

Perspective is everything.

We don't tend to notice the vast majority of innocuous, even friendly interactions. We notice right away when somebody is being a jerk. How often does that happen? Not very. Does it make more of an impact when it does? You bet!

If 5% of comments are problematic in some way, that's one in twenty. How many SE comments does somebody typically encounter in a day? There are currently 15 on this page alone. So maybe a casual visitor won't always see a problem comment, but if it happens every second or third visit, is that something to be concerned about? Because it doesn't take many bad comments to get there.

Now, I disagree with how SE has handled some of these problems (sometimes quite strongly), and I do think some people go looking for opportunities to be offended, but I also know, from direct experience, that some of our sites do have problems with comments. What we should (and shouldn't) do about that is far from clear, but to speak to the question you ask: yes, I think 5% bad is enough to pay attention to.

  • 9
    "I also know, from direct experience, that some of our sites do have problems" Is this an unnecessary source of friction in this whole topic, I wonder? The blog and other company-authored posts seem to keep saying "Stack Overflow", but are they thinking about the whole network? For example, how does acrimony in comments on Politics compare to Stack Overflow? I'd be willing to bet (though prepared to lose) that it's higher, at least proportionally -- but maybe even absolutely. More specificity from SE might be useful. (Even the title of this question says "the site"...)
    – jscs
    Commented Dec 4, 2018 at 22:58
  • 3
    @JoshCaswell I can't speak for all sites, but I know that some of the sites I'm active on have this problem worse than others. How they compare to SO I can't really say, as I'm not active there. Moderators (justifiably) delete a lot of comments on Workplace, for example -- and I'm a mod there, not somebody picking on them from outside. Commented Dec 5, 2018 at 3:40
  • 3
    Except being mildly "unwelcoming" (with shock, horror, snark) is not the same as being a jerk.
    – Raedwald
    Commented Dec 5, 2018 at 16:02
  • 5
    @JoshCaswell From experience, some other SE sites have far worse culture than SO. Easier for skewed sub-cultures to grow when there are fewer users and moderators.
    – Lundin
    Commented Dec 6, 2018 at 10:25

SE is much less hostile than most of the sites and forums I've seen. So I'd certainly argue that the reputation as being unwelcoming is undeserved in this regard*. But the problem is that "we're better than the average site on the internet" is still a very low bar to meet. And we certainly should aim higher than that.

5% is actually higher than I would have expected. Though I'd argue that is because I overestimated the amount of simple noise in comments compared to unwelcoming content. You don't need that much hostile content as a percentage of total comments to create a seriously hostile atmosphere. You usually remember the negative stuff, while the other neutral comments get lost in the noise. For a new user, it only takes a single bad comment to give a really negative first impression. And many users might not try again after that.

A single snarky or hostile comment is also likely to create a response, and the tone usually doesn't improve in those cases, it only gets worse. Stopping this kind of deteriorating conversations earlier is usually a good thing.

* there are other aspects of SE sites that are often perceived as hostile. Getting downvoted and getting your questions closed isn't the same thing, but it certainly is perceived as somewhat hostile by many new users.

  • 22
    Mind you, the 5% were rated as merely "unwelcoming" and the disagreement amongst raters was pretty high. We're talking about an alpha of at best 0.3 here, which is orders of magnitude below what a scientist would permit to draw any conclusions from. So the takeaway could simply be "everyone feels unwelcoming in a different way"
    – Magisch
    Commented Dec 5, 2018 at 10:45

Short answer: yes. We still need to think about and work on this.

Statistics are great, and I am a firm believer in data-driven behavior for most things, but numbers don't work so well when it comes to feelings.

If some new person comes to Stack Overflow and their own perception is that they haven't been welcomed, then the site is unwelcoming, regardless of how well or poorly the interactions they were involved in might be quantitatively scored.

As Abraham Lincoln would wouldn't* tell you here, there will always be some people who individually think the site/network is unwelcoming. It becomes a problem if the number of those people grows to a certain size, or those people start convincing others about how the site feels.

An alternative, slightly more concrete argument: it doesn't take a huge percentage of "bad" comments to make a site feel unwelcoming. If most of the content someone sees is unremarkable, but there's one comment that makes a new user feel uncomfortable, that's the one they'll focus on; it's human nature, not a flaw of the user.

It's just not memorable when things are boring or quietly work the way they're supposed to. It takes something unusual (either good or bad, but "bad" seems to take less work) to make a strong impression. This is why journalists talk about "dog bites man" not being particularly newsworthy, while "man bites dog" is.

Pithy wrap-up about negative perceptions: it's not always our fault, but it is always our problem.

*: Actually, it turns out the "you can please some/all of the people all/some of the time" attribution is disputed on Wikiquote.

  • 4
    "a shapeless mass of negativity..."
    – jscs
    Commented Dec 4, 2018 at 20:02
  • That's a good quotation, too.
    – SOLO
    Commented Dec 4, 2018 at 20:04
  • Ok, I'll upvote just for the pithy-wrap up. That's a great line!
    – Dan Bron
    Commented Dec 4, 2018 at 20:39
  • 6
    "then the site is unwelcoming" to them*. The site itself is not unwelcoming as a whole because an individual feels unwelcome due to potentially as few as one user's comments.
    – TylerH
    Commented Dec 5, 2018 at 15:27
  • 1
    I don't know about that. If that doesn't mean the site is unwelcoming, then what does it mean for the site to be unwelcoming?
    – SOLO
    Commented Dec 10, 2018 at 14:21

It really doesn't take all that many users being mean/rude to make a person not feel welcome. I don't have the StackExchange App on my phone anymore because the comments just two users kept leaving me. One or two users can be all it takes to make someone feel harassed.

At the same time, I have raised quite a few comment flags, and in my experience, most of the rude comments are made by a very small number of users who leave lots of rude comments. Focusing on those users and perhaps removing their ability to comment on other people's posts would greatly help the situation.

Here is the other thing, outright rudeness/bigotry/racism gets dealt with right away, constant sniping and putdowns can take months before anything other than comment deletion happens.

In summary, I think that 5% of comments being unwelcoming/rude/non-constructive is a problem, but I also object to any attempts to paint the community as a whole as unwelcoming.

  • 2
    And not just one or two people. Being treated rudely by the community moderators can REALLY make a particular exchange unwelcoming.
    – Tim
    Commented Dec 16, 2019 at 16:34

Which makes me wonder: is there a problem to be solved here in the first place? Is Stack Exchange, despite all the drama, brouhaha, and blog posts, not actually unwelcoming after all?

I'm going to be hugely unpopular and say Yes, there is still a problem. And yes, Stack Exchange probably still deserves its reputation as being unfriendly.

The following comments have all been deleted because they were either flagged by me or by someone else.

The following comment on EL&U was addressed to me after I had defended an answer as being perfectly legitimate even if the author quoted some Google statistics.

enter image description here

This was addressed to a new contributor who had not capitalised the word "english" in their question. Note the diamond.

enter image description here

This was a comment left at an answer of mine on Meta, some of you might have seen this one.

enter image description here

This is a comment addressed to a new contributor, which I flagged earlier today

enter image description here

What kind of impression do these comments leave on visitors, users, and new contributors? Who is the real victim? The recipient or the site's reputation and good name? How many users just shrugged their shoulders, and brushed the comments to one side? And by the way these comments were posted months after the CoC.

N.B. A “GP” is British for general practitioner, in American it would be “family doctor”.

Is anyone going to say there isn't a problem?

  • 1
    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. Commented Dec 7, 2018 at 3:26
  • 5
    I see precisely two problematic comments there, one of which is actually abusive. Commented Dec 16, 2018 at 2:50
  • 4
    You found some unwelcoming comments. Perfection is impossible; with enough comments, some unwelcoming comments are inevitable. "Being unwelcoming" is therfore a statistical property. Pointing at some unwelcoming comments does not indicate that SE "is unwelcoming". Only presenting some statistics showing the prevalence of bad posts can do that.
    – Raedwald
    Commented Dec 17, 2018 at 6:57
  • @Raedwald #1 No, perfection has never existed, but there's a reason why SE has implemented the new CoC, do you think they did it out of boredom? Generally speaking, SE has a negative reputation online, and everyone is also much more sensitive to criticism than we were in the past, especially the young, before the social media boom. Commented Dec 17, 2018 at 10:32
  • 1
    #2 If your first question gets closed and downvoted, it's not a great experience. Can we agree on that? And EL&U has about a 54% "rejection" rate. Stack Overflow's rate hovers around 11%, surprisingly low but it also receives 3 million questions per year. The statistics of which you speak of were provided by SE, and I've shown the proof. This is but a small sample but the number of comments on EL&U I have flagged for being rude, unfriendly and or abusive is much higher than what you see here. Commented Dec 17, 2018 at 10:32
  • 1
    @JJJ how often have users and yourself voted to keep a question open on the close review? Very frequently, sometimes or hardly ever? The answer is there. Why does EL&U have so many questions voted to close? Maybe it has something to do with quality and standards. Commented Mar 5, 2019 at 10:24
  • Thanks for posting actual examples. The truth is probably that this exchange is somewhat welcome and somewhat unwelcome. Commented Dec 4, 2019 at 22:43
  • 1
    I totally agree that certain site are very unwelcoming. E.g., the first comment on a new user's post is " I'd be very interested in hearing about what you discovered before you came to ask us." And then the new user is berated, down-voted, the question is closed, then the same moderators that behaved poorly delete their rude remarks, changed the post, cleaned up their comments, and disallowed any changes to the post...most unwelcoming.
    – Tim
    Commented Dec 16, 2019 at 16:50

All of the comments in the study are from Stack Overflow, but most of the unwelcoming comments I've come across are on other sites. I understand Stack Overflow is the behemoth in the room, but I wonder if the smaller sites have more impact on the network's reputation than might be expected by simply looking at traffic.

In my experience, developers talking to developers have a higher tolerance for directness that seems rude to people working in less technical fields. When you have developers talking to, for example, an expert woodworker, there might be more friction. There are also versions of Stack Overflow available in languages other than English, which could also be a factor in reducing comments perceived to be unwelcoming. I have often seen innocent remarks that seem perfectly fine to me be very hurtful to someone else because of a language or culture difference.

In short, I'm questioning extrapolating the results to the entire network. I think that it is easier for cliques (which to me are the definition of unwelcoming) to form on smaller sites and there is more room for miscommunication when you're talking about topics where you can't just compile the answer and run it to see if it is correct. People solving a coding problem behave a bit differently than people answering a question like Is the conspiracy theory of “Cultural Marxism” inherently tied to antisemitism? (a question on the Politics site).


I'd wager that whether 95% seems low or high (or just right) depends on your prior assumptions. Perhaps the most important sentence of the blog post reads:

[We] as employees learned that we don’t always perceive problems in the same way as other members of our community.

Employees as a group rated more comments as unwelcoming or abusive than users. Based on our priors, the user ratings seem somewhat more optimistic about the current state of comment friendliness. Perhaps the reason we rated comments as less welcoming than other groups is because we were primed to see negative comments because it's a common complaint about the site. It is one factor in why Stack Overflow's growth has leveled off and is a problem we've been eager to solve for years.

But what is an acceptable level of unwelcoming comments? Perhaps you don't see any particular problem with the tone of the network. In that case, the current level is fine. I guess. Conversely, if you are concerned that comments are too harsh, the current level is too high. My guess is that most people who spend time on the site would estimate that somewhere between 90-99% of comments are "fine". Generally we all agree Stack Exchange comments tend to be better than comments on other sites. So finding out that 95% of comments are fine won't change our prior understanding of the "welcomingness" of the site. Neither would 91.8%, for that matter.

So what's an objectively defined level of too many unwelcoming comments? I think the answer very much depends on whether you care about the network being a permanent resource or if you are willing for the network to shut down in a few decades. This might seem overly dramatic, but I encourage you to walk down this mental path with me. (And please excuse me for focusing on Stack Overflow in the beginning. I'll get to the rest of the network near the end.)

Usenet: a cautionary tale

I got interested in newsgroups when I started programming full time in 1999. I distinctly remember an article by Jon Udell that opened my eyes to the possibility of what we used to call groupware. It was already a well-matured system that let ordinary programmers help each other. It was also "overwhelmed with spam, smut and nonsense". Fortunately, some groups (notably the the Big 8) were relatively free of these distractions. While some groups relied on moderation, many thrived simply by using social pressure. Obnoxious users would be reprimanded by Usenet grognards. One strict rule was to ignore certain troublemakers (trolls). There were essentially no other controls to keep quality high and noise low.

Stack Overflow essentially made Usenet irrelevant for finding answers to programming questions. There are a number of reasons:

  • Q&A is a better format for knowledge propagation than branching discussions.
  • Stack Overflow content has always been favored by search engines.
  • The reputation system encouraged enlightened self-interest.
  • Features like voting and question closing surfaced useful content.

But also Stack Overflow had not yet developed a reputation for harshness. Since there weren't any rules in the beginning except those created by the system, it felt safer for my generation of programmers than Usenet with its killfiles and exhortations not to feed trolls. For people like me it was an enormous opportunity to forge new rules and a new way of interaction.

So Usenet lost out to a superior product and also to a fresh culture. After 10+ years, that culture is not so fresh anymore. It's no longer possible for a handful of users to shape the way people interact. While I think we've mostly ended up in a good place, our interactions with each other are far from perfect. For the moment, I don't see a viable alternative to Stack Overflow. However, when it does arrive, I'm certain the opportunity to start over will be attractive to many existing users.

Artificial societies

We might pick 0 unwelcoming comments as an objective goal. The trouble with this zero-tolerance approach is that it leads to shifting standards. This is how we end up with a student arrested for bringing a clock to school. It's also not entirely clear how much of the problem is related to public perception and how much is related to harsh comments that still exist on the site. It could be that we could eliminate unwelcome comments and still be seen as too harsh.

On the other hand, it's obvious that there is some level at which unwelcoming comments discourage users from using the site and actively drive them away. Everybody has their own level of tolerance for unwelcoming behavior, so we need to look at the effects on the society has a whole. It's not the sort of thing we can solve with a vote or using our gut.

To illustrate the current situation, I created an agent-based model of how users might respond to a potentially unwelcoming environment. I built the model based on Shamus Young's Philosophy of Moderation. He postulates that there are three types of users:

  1. Unshakable kind people,
  2. Unrepentantly harsh people and
  3. Normal folks who adjust to the current tone they see around them.

I built a very simple model that you can try out. (Click the "Model Info" arrow for a detailed description and "NetLogo Code" for the source code.) It assumes that kind people will always raise the level of discourse, but will leave if there are too many unwelcoming comments. Harsh people influence the environment by increasing unwelcoming comments and normal users adapt to the average level of their neighborhood. The result is an very stable situation that seems entirely sustainable for a long period of time. But every now and then a user with low tolerance for unwelcome comments will leave the site and when enough have, it will start a cascading failure case:

Stable to rapidly deteriorating society

This is probably a good time to say I started writing the model late last week and this is the first time I'm sharing it with anyone. This by no means motivated the Welcome Wagon project and is my own idiosyncratic way of looking at the world. But I think most of us in the company agree that our public sites, and Stack Overflow in particular, are at risk of cultural calcification. If we become too insular, the next generation of programmers could very well pass us by.

The critical number in the model is the level of unwelcoming comments that will cause people to start to leave. I estimated that people who have high standards for tone will leave if 20% or more of the comments they see are snarky. That can happen from time to time even if 90% or more of comments globally are just fine. So I'm not really any closer to knowing what the "right" level is, but we can't necessarily feel safe at the current level.

Chat: a cautionary tale

This pattern usually takes a long time to develop in the model. Without examples, it's difficult to validate the model. We've had a few sites fail dramatically in their first few weeks because of increasingly crase content. The cases I recall involved "Sexuality" sites that started off poorly and quickly descended from there. We finally got a site that works for this topic by expanding to Interpersonal Skills in general and having a team of hardworking users uphold certain standards. The model suggests that if these users left, it wouldn't take long for the site to fall into 4chan territory.

You might intuit that it's a natural consequence of the topic matter. But we've see the same pattern several chat rooms on the network, including several language-specific rooms on Stack Overflow. Everytime this comes up, we discover that users serious about civil discourse have given up on the room and the users who remain believe it's fine for a room to have a culture of coarse jokes and irreverent commentary. In other words, my simple model captures a common failure case in chat. Since chat is more fluid than onsite comments, it's not surprising we'd see these problems develop more quickly in that medium.

What about content?

As I thought about the model for unwelcoming comments, it occured to me that it would work just as well to model post quality. The dynamics seem similar in that some people have high standards, others have low or no standards, and the majority will tend to the current level of quality they see around them. What happens in the people with high standards start to leave? Well, I expect quality will fall off a cliff at some point.

So why shouldn't that be the priority? Well, the first reason is that it has been since the very first question was asked on the site. If you look at the tools we have for controlling content, they are quite varied: voting, closing, locking, protecting, editing, deleting, reviewing and quality filters. At least one of these tools ought to address quality problems when they crop up. Our tools for dealing with unwelcome comments (flags, deletion and suspension) are less flexible.

My second reason is more nuanced: quality is contextual. When I read complaints about quality on the site, it's not uncommon for people to focus not on obviously junk content, but on posts that have more subtle flaws. Maybe the code should be checking for system call errors or avoid a certain security flaw or stop using global variables for everything. It's not so much that answers are wrong as that they fail to exemplify excellence in the craft of programming. It might be acceptable to have such code in a throw-away script, but it shouldn't be used in a public answer where unsuspecting new programmers might learn bad habits.

One of the things we've learned through user research is that programmers read more than just the top answer to a question. This is good because it's not uncommon to see the top two answers of popular questions be 1) an ultra-pragmatic answer that gives a solution and 2) a detailed answer explaining the nuances readers might come across. (Randomly chosen example: How do I redirect to another webpage?) It might be that the best answer for a particular situation is the quick and dirty one. But there's also plenty of room to add another detailed answer that demonstrates the best we have to offer.

There's one more reason I think we should be working on more welcoming comments: we haven't given up on quality. Right now, we are testing custom question lists, which will help people find questions to answer. Also, we will be testing the next iteration of the ask a question wizard soon. And there are a few more projects in the early stages of discovery which ought to help users produce better content.

Everyone codes now

Our annual survey reported:

Each month, about 50 million people visit Stack Overflow to learn, share, and build their careers. We estimate that 21 million of these people are professional developers and university-level students.

So who are the ~29 million people who visit Stack Overflow and are not developers? Some of them are astronomers who use R, journalists who use Git and Community Managers who use NetLogo to get their jobs done. Every indication is that there will be more non-programmers in the future. I think there are two possible consequences:

  1. Code that non-programmers use can be less concerned about best practices.
  2. Non-programmers will need help from programmers to get applications that meet their needs.

When I worked at JPL, I was responsible for processing spectrometer data into useful atmospheric science products. The scientists wrote their algorithms in FORTRAN and provided executables that we ran on global observations. For a few months after launch, everything seemed to be going well. But we started noticing that the science algorithms were taking longer and longer to finish. After some investigation, we discovered the executables were pulling in all the rows in the database into memory and then filtering down to the relevant dataset. Not only was that a lot of unneeded I/O overhead, but the algorithm used to select the data was something like O(n2). So as we added more data, processing took exponentially longer.

Since it was too late to change the science software, we created a hack: every discrete dataset would go into its own schema and we'd pass the connection string for that subset schema to the science executables. Eventually, we built an entire system around that concept that created schemas from the complete dataset as needed. I would have prefered to fix the queries so they had a where clause. But my job was to make everything work, so that's what I did.

It's far too late to say that Stack Overflow is for programmers; we already have a majority of non-developers using the content on this site. So the question is how do we accommodate those who are new to the mysteries of code. Yes, we need to be strict about pure junk. (But please don't use comments.) However when confronted with code that, say, will never scale properly, we ought to kindly and helpfully point that out. This is, afterall, a teaching opportunity.

The diversity of Stack Exchange

Ok, let's get real. The immediate reason we started the Welcome Wagon is that our annual survey annually reveals we don't have a very diverse user base on Stack Overflow. There are good reasons to worry about that even if you don't care about bad PR. Like most companies, we do care about getting good press, so this is likely to be one of our priorities for as long as it is seen as a problem.

We have a lot more diversity sitting just outside programmer Jerusalem. The network is still male-dominated, of course:

Gender representation according to Quantcast

But the sites themselves host an incredible variety of topics beyond programming. It demonstrates that the Q&A format can be welcoming to a variety of people. I'm incredibly proud to be a part of these communities and we ought to do what we can to avoid the sort of catastrophic collapse that my model suggests is possible for any of our sites.

  • This is a great essay, Jon, thanks for sharing these thoughts.
    – jscs
    Commented Dec 15, 2018 at 19:18
  • 2
    I have a number of currently noisy and overlapping thoughts on this through and well-presented answer. I may come back with a more substantive comment later. For now, I stand behind a lot of what you say, but I think you give “question quality” short shrift, and/or underestimate the numbing proportion of new questions which are just hopeless. I feel that every action you applaud in the section on comment curation, you dismiss or diminish when it comes to question curation, and vice versa. But outside of that, I am extremely impressed with this answer.
    – Dan Bron
    Commented Dec 16, 2018 at 11:44
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    It's far too late to say that Stack Overflow is for programmers I just can't agree with this. We have to have a minimum level of skill required to properly ask questions on SO. Removing that barrier is just opening the floodgates, and is already destroying the quality standards. This is likely the dichotomy between SE and curators; we deal with enough junk in a day, and want that limited as much as possible, and see loosening the standards as the first step to ruin. Your analysis is missing another class of user: those that believe in the mission above all else.
    – fbueckert
    Commented Feb 26, 2019 at 18:55
  • @fbueckert: If you re-read the section that you quoted from, you might see that I'm talking about readers, not posters necessarily. My analysis absolutely considers people who believe in the mission, but I suppose it wasn't as clear as it could be. It seems almost certain that if some system better than Stack Overflow gains traction, we'll quickly lose users such as yourself. I think the solution is to get more people onboard with the mission now while we have a chance. Commented Feb 26, 2019 at 19:43
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    Quantity has a quality all it's own. That's not usually used as a positive descriptor, though. Yes, if there was another system without this silly welcoming push, SE would lose a good chunk of it's userbase, and perhaps starting the spiral you're demonstrating. I think there can be a balance between being welcoming and maintaining quality, but it requires additional effort from new users. The current methods push far too much onto the established userbase, and indirectly faults us for the issues.
    – fbueckert
    Commented Feb 26, 2019 at 20:17
  • 3
    @fbueckert: We're close to announcing the results of our Ask a Question Wizard. The results are not dissimilar from the results of the question template experiment. People who get the more structured guidance are less likely to ask. We strongly suspect that it's because they didn't know how much effort was required. It's a very encouraging result. Commented Feb 26, 2019 at 20:51
  • 4
    I'd agree with that being pretty encouraging. But there needs to be a comparison between question rates with, and without, the wizard, along with relative quality comparisons. That's where much of this falls down; we can slow down the flood, but when most of what we get is junk, we still really only see junk. I doubt I'm the only one completely exhausted at trying to gently guide users into something approaching our standards, only to have that blow up in my face more often than not.
    – fbueckert
    Commented Feb 26, 2019 at 21:03
  • Great answer, and a powerful illustration of a point that can be very difficult to get across, both within SE and elsewhere.
    – duplode
    Commented Jun 4, 2019 at 16:31

There was a little girl,
Who had a little curl,
Right in the middle of her forehead.
When she was good,
She was very good indeed,
But when she was bad she was horrid.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

My grandmother used to recite poems, that one was one of her favorites.

It comes to mind because I think that's what we often see on the network here. When we're good we're very good indeed, but when we're bad we're horrid. For the most part folks get along and behave themselves, but when things go off the rails... well... it's horrid.

Yes we're better than most places on the net when it comes to deleting the horrid, but "better" isn't always as good as it could be, and deletion usually occurs quietly after the damage is already done. It's easy to delete things and pretend the horrid didn't happen, but when it's directed at you, you usually see it before the rest of the community, you see it before the mods. Someone writes the horrid, you read the horrid, and then moderation wipes it away.

I've been around long enough to notice that this thing seems somewhat cyclical. We go on a campaign of nice, or welcome, or what have you, things improve enough so it's no longer a priority, and then we backslide till enough people complain, and it becomes a priority again.

If we want to break the cycle the cost is likely going to be sustained attention to these things. We don't get to say "well we're better than most" or "it's good enough for now" and take a break.

  • 14
    Life, and more specifically, software development is absolutely filled with "good enough for now" though. I don't think anyone is in honesty against fewer snarky comments overall, they just disagree that is should be in any way a priority.
    – Magisch
    Commented Dec 5, 2018 at 10:39

Your question is "Is Stack Exchange not actually unwelcoming after all?" My answer is No. Stack Exchange in general is not unwelcoming. On the contrary, I have participated in a few different exchanges over the years, and I find most sites welcoming. Only one exchange made me feel completely unwelcome, and that one experience did dampen my desires to look at other exchanges I might enjoy. And the issue with that one experience was not the answer I got; it was entirely the comments. These were comments from the community moderators! And judging from one of the other responses to your post, I'm not the only one who has experienced an issue with that particular exchange.

In my opinion, the employees at Stack Exchange are right on target: Comments need more attention. Not only should SE be focusing on comments, extra scrutiny should be placed on the community moderators because their comments have more weight than comments from some random user.

My only questions is can an exchange be helpful once the mods have formed their clique?


There's been much ado over the last 5 years or so about the SE network being "unwelcoming".

I can't talk from an informed standpoint about other sites on the Stack Exchange network, but, in the main, Stack Overflow isn't unwelcoming. It's simply rules-based and insensitive.

Insensitive to the point of abrasiveness.

New users think they're being criticised when they're being corrected without even a scintilla of human sensitivity.

It's only when you get past 5k rep (or so) and you find yourself still being abruptly corrected and having your questions shut down, frozen out, ignored and dismissed just as insensitively that you realise that the same abrasiveness is applied to all members no matter how new or old they are.

Then you fully comprehend that Stack Overflow is not "unwelcoming" - it's just following "house rules" and applying them to everyone like an EQ-devoid robot, without prejudice, fear or favour.


I came across this discussion while considering this exact issue. I believe SE does have a bit of a problem with seeming to be unwelcoming. For me the key point was hit on in the original question here:

Or maybe the recent focus on comments was the wrong target to aim for? If that's the case, we'd have to look somewhere else. Are we going to analyze, say, downvotes, closevotes², flags, next?

I'm coming from the perspective of someone relatively new to SE and focusing mostly on the English language & Usage and English Language Learners stacks. I really like the standard of rigor that users apply and the heart put into researching answers, and I've found most of the comments to be helpful and useful. That's why I joined the site and began participating, but I was quickly put off by behavior from more senior members.

What I have found unwelcoming has been the close voting of "imperfect questions" and downvoting of legitimate answers to questions deemed unfit for the community. I understand that many of those on the site are scholars and experts who expect a certain level of self-study, and there are questions from lazy students which deserve to be refused without some research, but my feeling is that it goes too far.

Closing questions because they are not rigourous enough, or don't have an accompanying essay explaining how their research left them unclear on some fine point seems harsh to me. Thus far I haven't asked a question which has been voted closed, so this isn't a personal reaction--at least not on that score. The downvoting of fair answers to imperfect questions is another matter.

My suggestions are these:

  1. Users should reserve downvoting for answers that give incorrect answers.

If it's incomplete, make a comment on the answer or give a more complete answer. Don't upvote. Instead, upvote the better answers. The cream will rise to the top.

  1. Users should reserve the option to close answers for duplicates, wrong category, incomprehensible, or [edit] clearly of no value to the community.

If truly a duplicate, put a link to to the older thread when closing. If it's in the wrong category, have the thread moved. If it's comprehensible but poorly worded, edit the question or ask for clarification. (edit: I understand much of this is already being done.)

If a question has the appearance of an academic inquiry that lacks effort, flag it as such and ask them for what research they've done (like what happens now), but if it's a simple question that can be easily answered either leave it for someone who is willing to handle such questions or just answer it. Trying to discuss why it is they don't understand something is usually less productive than giving a good explanation.

[edit] The standard by which questions are accepted can be broadened without compromising the quality of answers on the site.

And if there is a thread where someone asks a question that may not really merit an answer, but some kind soul does put in a decent effort, let the answer be unless it's actually unhelpful to the asker. If it's just a personal feeling the question isn't good enough, I think downvoting good questions is antithetical to the purpose of the site. At the very least it is unwelcoming.

But, I'm new. Maybe I don't get how closing questions that can actually be answered or downvoting fair answers to such questions helps things. I'm just saying that it does feel unwelcoming to me and I suspect it has the same effect on others.

  • 2
    Reserve downvoting for answers to that give incorrect answers. That is a cultural change which might be positive but is unenforceable by the software unless you require reasons for downvote, which is a suggestion that has been discussed and declined a good two or three hundred times so far.
    – Magisch
    Commented Jun 3, 2019 at 11:19
  • 3
    "I think downvoting good questions is antithetical to the purpose of the site" You're not going to get pretty much anyone to disagree with that here. The problem is you've defined "literally every question" as "a good question", rather than defining "questions that are actually useful to the community" as "good questions", the way the site itself has defined it.
    – Servy
    Commented Jun 3, 2019 at 21:57
  • 4
    But regardless, thanks for confirming that SE is incorrect to focus on comments, in in your eyes as a new user, and that it's actually the very idea of having quality standards, and the closing and downvoting of bad content, that you as a new user find unwelcoming.
    – Servy
    Commented Jun 3, 2019 at 21:59
  • 1
    On a personal note though, there are lots of sites out there on the internet that are designed around the premise that all questions (or at least all non-spam questions) are welcome, and to which there aren't quality standards for questions or answers, merely a place for anyone to say whatever they want. Of course, SE is not one of those places, and doesn't try to be one of those places, but if that's what you're looking for, instead of a highly curated place designed to produce a high standard of quality, there are plenty of other places that offer it.
    – Servy
    Commented Jun 3, 2019 at 22:01
  • 1
    @Servy Some questions are clearly off-topic (e.g. a programming question on MSE), but every site has a gray area of topics where the community splits on whether they should be allowed or rejected (e.g. software tools on SO, game identification on Arqade, homebrew on RPG, etc.). Rulings on those areas are often contentious and applied inconsistently, and it'd be interesting to see how much of the unwelcome effect comes from questions in those types of categories vs general downvote/closure culture. Even bystanders get sucked into contentious category wars, moreso than a downvote on a question.
    – Troyen
    Commented Jun 4, 2019 at 0:10
  • 1
    @Servy I must thank you, as your comments on acceptable questions really illustrates exactly what I was talking about. You would prefer an exclusive, not-overly welcoming environment on SE, and I can see the benefit in that, but I believe an adjustment to the standard can be made and actually increase the usefulness of SE to all of its users. On the other hand, the polite snark with which you dismissed me ("but if that's what you're looking for...there are plenty of other places that offer it") cuts against my argument that comments aren't the main issue. :P
    – Michael
    Commented Jun 4, 2019 at 0:28
  • 4
    @Michael This is the inherent clash here. You want to change what SE is and looks like, and a bunch of people see this as it becoming worse, while you see it as becoming better. You probably won't find much support for that here, as meta tends to be rather conservative as far as SE is concerned.
    – Magisch
    Commented Jun 4, 2019 at 7:25
  • 2
    @Michael "There are questions there that have been closed that would, in my opinion, be useful to the community." And yet your answer makes a point of saying you don't think people should be allowed to downvote or close questions that aren't useful to the community. So that's clearly not what you've said thus far. If there's a particular category of questions that you feel is generally useful to the community, despite meeting a close criteria, then explain why you think those types of questions are useful and shouldn't be closed.
    – Servy
    Commented Jun 4, 2019 at 14:54
  • 2
    @Michael The closure criteria are the result of lots of discussions over an extended period of time to determine what is and isn't useful. You should familiarize yourself with those discussions, see why the current closure criteria exist, and if you have compelling evidence for why different criteria would be better, provide it. But just saying, "people shouldn't be closing questions because someone might find it useful," isn't going to be compelling argument for many.
    – Servy
    Commented Jun 4, 2019 at 14:55
  • 2
    @Michael Just dismissing anyone that disagrees with you as being snarky and insulting, purely because they don't agree with completely destroying all of the core values with the site, is not appropriate. It's not snark to tell you that there are lots of sites out there that work in exactly the way you want this site to work. It's not snark, or unwelcoming, to tell you that SE was founded on the premise of being different from those sites. You're more than welcome to participate in the site, but you're expected to meet the site's standards while doing so.
    – Servy
    Commented Jun 4, 2019 at 14:58
  • 2
    Using question, "legitimacy" is a common defense against curation. To be blunt, how badly (or even if) you need to solve the problem isn't something we weigh when curating. It's an often heard refrain to guilt curators into bypassing their question. And it doesn't work. If you want help on SE, then meet the quality standards. If you can't, or won't, do that, well, then I'm sorry, but your question doesn't belong here.
    – fbueckert
    Commented Jun 4, 2019 at 15:47
  • 3
    Additionally, one of the primary reasons to close questions to to allow the asker to edit it into shape. At which point, it can be reopened. Unless it's egregious spam or rude, it usually has until the roomba comes and grabs it before it gets deleted.
    – fbueckert
    Commented Jun 4, 2019 at 15:51
  • 2
    Your standards are looser than ours. There's nothing wrong with that, but you're going to get a whole lot of pushback about trying to get curators to loosen up. If you've done any amount of curation for any length of time, you learn quick that people don't appreciate you for going easy on them. So most people now vote quick, vote often, and have no issue with new users needing to put more effort into their posts in order to allow them.
    – fbueckert
    Commented Jun 4, 2019 at 16:18
  • 6
    Thank you for your answer. I appreciate the open-mindedness of it and the honest perspective from a new users. I very much appreciate your demonstration of understanding of the prevailing perspective. There's things to chew on here. I'll be interested if your perspective changes, over time and as you see more and more (very similar) questions to see if it stays the same, converges towards the existing consensus, or something else. And welcome to EL&U! That's my primary site.
    – Dan Bron
    Commented Jun 4, 2019 at 16:39
  • 5
    @Servy, Michael, I've deleted some comments that were starting to get heated and were going in circles. I don't think either of you is going to convince the other, and both of you can make your cases in answers. Commented Jun 4, 2019 at 20:24

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