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Outraged users are telling Stack Exchange Inc. that their management of the current crisis is endangering the wellbeing of the Stack Exchange sites. This warning has been repeated in many forms countless times.

But I cannot see any indication that the sites actually suffer from the pronoun crisis, the firing of Monica, the resignation of many moderators, or Stack Exchange Inc.'s intransparent site managment. On the contrary, it seems to me that the sites are healthy and users are still happily asking and answering away.

Does the current crisis actually affect the sites? And if so, in what way?

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    The effect is negligible, otherwise the management would have at least pretended to notice us. – Athari says Reinstate Monica Nov 17 at 6:30
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    I really don't think the effect is negligible, but it's hard for me to tell what toll the community is taking on itself. If I had to guess, I'd wager the biggest effect is on the rank-and-file SE employees like the CMs who have to wade through the constant toxicity to get their paychecks. – user215040 Nov 17 at 6:34
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    @metasnail Its pretty negligible even for them I think. They don't really need to read the majority of posts, and I think they clearly don't. Even more clearly they don't respond to 99.99999999% of it, even the parts they should. They continue to steamroll ahead with their plans. They don't actually seem to be affected at all. And of course we're only the .01% of users who even click the Meta button, not the 99.9% that drive their ad revenue, so us being mad matters little to them – David says Reinstate Monica Nov 17 at 6:44
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    The worst effect didn't come with the lastest crisis, imho. For a while now I see terrible posts being made (in my most frequented tag on SO); instead of being downvoted or closed or pointed to dupes they get answered. People make pity-upvotes ("+1 to counter the downvote", "I voted up because this is a beginner", "upvoted because user was assaulted (read: moderation happened)"). "You have to be nice" is used as a weapon against moderation. I've lost my interest in participating on my main site. – Modus Tollens Nov 17 at 7:08
  • @ModusTollens That may be so, but my question explicitly asks about the effects of the current crisis. – I am not the way you speak Nov 17 at 7:28
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    I didn't check in depth yet, but pretty sure the main and worst effect is that Stack Overflow is becoming W3Schools. Simple answers to simple questions, and nothing beyond that, as result of the core users leaving or losing their interest with the site. :( – Shadow The Princess Wizard Nov 17 at 8:15
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    " it seems to me that the sites are healthy " I wouldn't say that. At least stackoverflow looks a bit ill to me, even though it looked so already before but it rather got a bit worse since then. – Trilarion Nov 17 at 10:12
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    There was a flawed analysis by Shog for a similar incident with SE staff using the site's popularity for political reasons. Perhaps you can ping SE and ask for another analysis that checks the results more thoroughly. E.g. takes into account quality of contributors, seasonal variation in contribution, counts correctly lost contributions by deleted users, etc. – Fermi paradox Nov 17 at 13:40
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    You can never wake up someone who's pretending to sleep. – iBug says Reinstate Monica Nov 17 at 17:38
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    The smaller sites are suffering quite a bit, lots of flags that aren't handled, trolling questions are left without moderation etc. – Lundin Nov 18 at 7:44
  • @Lundin Some smaller sites are, but I don’t think most of them are. Quite a few communities are carrying on just fine. – user215040 Nov 18 at 12:39
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    @iBugsaysReinstateMonica You can if you set fire to the bed ;) – faintsignal Nov 19 at 2:29
74

This is just personal experience, not hard data, but I believe that my reasoning makes sense:

I recently posted an answer to the same issue on both the MSDN forums and StackOverflow. The experience on StackOverflow is not only better, it's a whole different magnitude of better.

The problem is that Jeff and Joel designed a system which is self-regulating and extremely resilient. It works better than everything else available on the web: If all elected SO moderators stopped working and quality control were done only by staff and "regular" casual users, the quality would decline immensely, sure, - but it would probably still be better than all the alternatives out there. That's just how abysmal the alternatives are. Nothing (I have seen so far) comes even close to the StackExchange sites (and StackOverflow in particular).

So, this is probably not what you want to hear (and no, it's not what I want to hear either), but as long as there is no viable alternative (and I don't see one), it does not matter one bit whether questions receive +5, +10 or +15 rep per upvote, whether the CoC mandates this or that, or which measures are taken to increase or decrease the participation of particular groups of people. A lot more things would need to go wrong to make regular users go back to the dark days of crappy vendor support forums, where you have to dig through tons of "me too" and flame war posts to get to the answer you need.

  • 2
    For someone like me, who has never posted a technical software question on any site, could you explain why you posted on MSDN forums (Microsoft ??) and why is SO better? I'm guessing you got an answer on the latter, but how long did you have to wait? Could you provide a link to the questions you posted, please? – Mari-Lou A Nov 17 at 9:34
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    @Mari-LouA: In this particular case, I posted an answer, not a question. Why on both? Because I had a solution to that particular problem (which currently plagues a lot of developers - an Office update broke MS Access), and I wanted to help (and probably also to show off my knowledge and my solution - motivations are a complex thing). – Heinzi Nov 17 at 9:43
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    @MariLouA what you posted there is a question provoked by the answer, not a comment amount the answer. It's a good question, too. You should post it as a question, not as a comment. – Jim DeLaHunt Nov 17 at 9:44
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    And why is SO better than MSDN? I have experienced this flow in the MS forums all to often: (1) You ask your question. (2) Some external Microsoft contractor copy & pastes his default answer suggesting you repair your system. (3) You explain your problem again. (4) Someone suggests a solution which has nothing to do with your problem. (5) You explain why this has nothing to do with your problem. (6) You get drawn into personal arguments. (7) You disengage. (8) The Microsoft contractor sees that you stopped complaining and suggests that you accept one of the unhelpful post as a answer. – Heinzi Nov 17 at 9:48
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    @Mari-LouA: I don't want to meta-effect my answer, but you can find it easily in my profile (it's my latest answer on SO, and the MSDN post is linked in there). – Heinzi Nov 17 at 9:51
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    And that's just one of the reasons. The markdown editor is better in SO, and probably a lot of other reasons as well. As Jim DeLaHunt suggested, this is probably worth its own question. – Heinzi Nov 17 at 9:53
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    Sorry, I read "question" in place of "answer". Many years ago I used to find solutions to hardware problems (e.g. printer) on these forums , it can be like mining for silver, and I remember wasting hours before finding that one solution. But today, Googling, if you type the right search words, makes finding the fix easier. I once asked a question on User Experience, and nothing. Just comments telling me to reboot or transfer data to a portable hard disk, completely disregarding the issue. I did not return. – Mari-Lou A Nov 17 at 9:53
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    @Heinzi You should ignore the meta-effect and link it. Knowledge is more important than "undeserved extra imaginary points". – Fermi paradox Nov 17 at 11:22
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    So much this. As long as there's no viable alternative to the SE sites I'm active on, I'm not going anywhere. I'm mainly active on Code Review, and what we have there simply doesn't exist anywhere else. Recent actions of SE have hurt the community (and its effectiveness), but the site getting worse doesn't mean the competition is getting better. There is no viable competition, so we'll do what we can to keep our little piece going. – Mast Nov 17 at 11:53
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    @Iamnotthewayyouspeak It's not my place to go into detail, but we've at least lost a very good moderator due to this. – Mast Nov 17 at 12:16
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    @Iamnotthewayyouspeak: Well, the crisis does affect the mood of the community (that much is obvious, I think, by browsing through meta.SE), but my point is that the effect that the current mood of the community has on the success of SO is probably negligible, as long as there are no alternatives. – Heinzi Nov 17 at 12:34
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    This is true for a lot of things, but GitHub is catching up fast. I noticed earlier this year that for the first time since 2010, when scrolling down search results I'd skip past the Stack Overflow section initially, to see if there were results from GitHub because those were usually higher quality. I used to skip past everything including official docs, because Stack Overflow was almost always better. – user56reinstatemonica8 Nov 17 at 14:51
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    @Heinzi you're taking the worst of all tech response sites as a comparison. Consider a lot of new users consider SO to be just as bad, ie: a) post "this don't work pls help" question, 2) someone comments "you don't wanna do it like that", 3) several downvotes, 4) someone else answers what they think you should have asked, 5) many more comments arguing whether the question is off topic, 6) question gets closed. – gbjbaanb Nov 17 at 15:45
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    @gbjbaanb At least most non-closed questions actually get answered. On other platforms getting a useful answer on over 50% of the questions can be rare. – Mast Nov 17 at 15:55
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    Thank you @Heinzi for the most accurate description of MSDN that I've ever read. – SmrtGrunt says Respond2Monica Nov 18 at 18:59
57

There is at least one SE site that's not just been affected by the recent controversy, but (IMO) crippled by it: Writing.SE.

We've lost all our mods to this controversy - including Monica herself. A number of high-rep users, including some of our biggest contributors, have either deleted their accounts in protest of the CoC changes, or suspended activity in protest of how Monica's situation was handled. There is talk, in that second Meta question, of having the entire community abandon the site en masse and create a new one - though it is only talk at this stage.

The net result is that activity, which wasn't all that high before, now seems to be even lower. It's taking longer to close off-topic questions - sometimes over a day - because we have very few users who are willing and able to do so. I'm honestly not sure how much of an exaggeration it would be to say that it feels like Writing.SE is dying.

Fortunately, this seems to be an extreme case, and I can't say I'm noticing the effects of recent events on any of the other SE sites I frequent. Only Writing.

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    And only months after Writing.SE had graduated from Beta. Do you remember that announcement and how long it stayed up? It's so sad. – Mari-Lou A Nov 17 at 10:20
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    I never felt that Writing.SE was a healthy community. – I am not the way you speak Nov 17 at 12:12
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    We've definitely been crippled. Here's some (depressing) data: meta.stackexchange.com/a/336882/621673 – Evil Sparrow-Reinstate Monica Nov 17 at 15:47
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    I spend brainpower that was previously for Writing.SE here on MSE instead. (answering, reviewing, supporting challenges) – April --Un-Slander Monica-- Nov 17 at 16:36
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    So Writing, which was focused on the meaning of words and other venues of expression, was the first site to fall? Doesn't surprise me to be honest. – Frédéric Hamidi Nov 17 at 23:49
  • If a site collapses because it loses a few moderators, it was already on life support and dying. – Richard Nov 18 at 12:50
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    @Richard "it loses a few moderators", way to downplay the issue. It lost all of their mods, plus many high rep users. That, to a site that was just graduated from meta is lethal – Lamak Nov 18 at 13:56
  • Over the spring & summer, with the help of challenges, Writing.SE finally got to consistently over 10Q/day. We dropped back to our normal 7-9 after the question-focused challenges, but I'm sure now we're far lower. – April --Un-Slander Monica-- Nov 19 at 14:25
  • @April--Un-SlanderMonica-- Our 10 most recently-asked questions span a 4-day period, for an average of 2 1/2 Q/day... and half of them (including the four most recent ones) are off-topic. – F1Krazy Nov 19 at 14:30
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    Well, W.SE was a lifeline for me this spring (new dayjob, very isolating), and I was happy to participate in its growth and graduation (even if it was a consolation graduation with other older sights), and that's why I follow this chaos -- in hopes that it may return. I mean this is NANOWRIMO month -- the fact that Writing is this empty is absurd! – April --Un-Slander Monica-- Nov 19 at 14:46
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    @Richard I don't think it was the loss of the mods. It lost a lot of the high-rep active answerers and users, which resulted in fewer votes and answers. Sorting by activity on the site users page reveals only a few of the major active users remain. Comparing reputation league for August vs October shows a drop of about 56% for the number of users gaining 25+ rep in a month. That doesn't appear to include deleted users either, so likely much higher. – Troyen Nov 22 at 10:46
49

Others already answered about the effect on sites. I'll share the effect of the crisis on me personally and possibly on others who feel the same.

TL;DR: The crisis made me lose any trust in Stack Exchange the company.

I don't trust anything they do anymore and believe their motives for changes are very far from what they say.

I don't leave, because that won't change anything and won't help the others who are staying.

But I'm just a guest here now, who is on bad terms with the host. I don't really like being here anymore, staying for sake of others, and, well, old habits die hard.

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    Old habits die hard. You can say that again. I am on strike ever since Monica was dismissed but every now and then I find myself cleaning crap anyway. I even answered few questions. – Resistance Is Futile Nov 17 at 13:11
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    @HerMajestyQueenofARC ouch! I was able to cease moderation tasks (edits, close votes, flags) for about a month. :) – Shadow The Princess Wizard Nov 17 at 13:30
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    I was pretty annoyed with Welcoming wagon. Then I went to silent DV and CV mode because comments are rude. And after curl incident my CV activities dropped from 30-40 to 1-4 daily CVs. I only got back for 3 CV experiment and continued until Sep 30, and I managed to strike for full 14 days. I am mostly doing nothing now, except on metas, but every now and then I still do something and hate myself for it. – Resistance Is Futile Nov 17 at 14:26
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    SO is very useful for me on a daily basis, so I edit and vote on those posts. Anything else, not my job, SE can pay someone to keep their sites vibrant and reviewed and welcoming and clean. – brasofilo Nov 18 at 3:51
36

In the short term? Probably next to none.

In the long term we may look back on this year as the tipping point, where the network began a slow, drawn-out march into a more hyphen-site-like menagarie of low-quality garbage, paywalled at that. Experts will leave but newcomers will still pour in, driving up visits … and filling up the database with reams of introductory nonsense that doesn't just borderline harm the OP but also harms future visitors. There's no direct way to measure the effect of that.

Then again, we've been calling 2014 that year for some time. But even that is not a given. The system is pretty resilient, because that's how it was designed to be, and it'll take yet more abysmal management to completely break that down.

The company knows this. Otherwise you might think they would spend less time trying to piss off the people who built the repository of information that will likely carry the site in its current form forwards for a long time to come.

I wager that this is also why so many people are so pissed off: because there is nothing else to do. We can't sit back with a smug "fine then, we'll see what happens to ya" mentality. We can only gather outrage at the unfairness of it all then try to move on, knowing full well that no only does the company not care, but that they also don't have much reason to.

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    Such a dumb waste. So much goodwill thrown away like garbage. – brasofilo Nov 18 at 4:01
  • Very very sad as they are, I don't think the current events have much to do with quality. That started when Stack Overflow entered its Eternal September state in 2010 (letting in posters with the minimum-effort attitude). The bad public image of Stack Overflow comes from people that don't like to be downvoted and have their question closed. You can't really blame them, but they should not be able to post a question in the first place if that is likely to happen. – Peter Mortensen Nov 19 at 1:01
  • cont' - Even before that there were tensions in the system, e.g. between rep harvesters and people wanting to prevent the content going out of date. I think the fundamental problem was not changing the base software in time to handle many different kinds of content, most to be hidden from search engines (for example, learning/teaching, human search engine, list of X, authorship-less reference material (canonicals), meta, discussions, emotional support for the pain during learning new things, etc.) - all is based on the same gamified Q&A model we know. – Peter Mortensen Nov 19 at 1:03
  • cont' (2) - That model is only good for providing very quick answers to questions. – Peter Mortensen Nov 19 at 1:04
21

The current crisis doesn't seem to have much of an effect on the SE network....yet.

If Stack Exchange would change all their sites to readonly tomorrow, it would still take months before the larger sites, like Stack Overflow, start significantly dropping in the Google Search ranking. Answers on questions like this will remain relevant for years to come. Once Stack Overflow starts dropping in the Google Search ranks, it may still take even more months before an alternative Q&A site starts filling the gap.

The current crisis seems to have resulted in several active users and moderators reducing their activity on the different Stack Exchange sites. The question is if these users will eventually be replaced by new contributors, or if there will be a slow decline in user contributions. If there is a decline in user participation and Stack Exchange continues on their drive to make their sites more welcoming, which seems to imply to make it easier to ask questions, I can see the question quality gradually dropping over time and this will have an adverse impact.

From personal experience I have found Stack Overflow less useful in the recent years. More and more I am stumbling on questions without an answer, or answers with outdated content and quite frequently I am finding my answers on GitHub issues. This might well be because I am increasingly relying on open source projects. As a result, I often find it more rewarding to raise a pull request to bug fix or enhance an open source project, rather than answering questions on Stack Overflow. Open source contributions are also a much more valuable addition to your CV rather than reputation points on Stack Overflow.

  • Re "...to your CV rather than reputation points on Stack Overflow": Agreed, but it is actually used as a filter (it is an easy HR filter, a single number). – Peter Mortensen Nov 18 at 23:35
  • As a hiring manager in the UK i haven't seen a single CV that mentions StackOverflow reputation points. Even if a CV would mention it, I can't use it as a simple filter. – Alex Nov 19 at 7:35
14

A personal account of coming to see correspondences through work in computer science1:

As Heinzi already said in his answer: Even if things becomes worse, the technical Q/A sites of the network (like Stack Overflow) are still far better than most alternatives.

One could do a deep philosophical dive here and think about accumulation and distribution and mechanics of economies. But roughly speaking: In the past 10 years, people could have answered in different forums and could have tried to make different forums and Q/A sites better. But Stack Overflow had (past tense) a goal that was shared by all those who strived to make things better: Create the single, best Q/A site in the world. So it accumulated all the knowledgeable and engaged people who are willing to spend their precious time to achieve this goal.

The model of self-moderation worked astonishingly well in this time. So many people did not only write answers, but also worked in the review queues, trying to minimize the suffering that is caused by the slings and arrows of outrageously bad questions. One could say that Stack Overflow basically "drained" the engaged people from the places where they could have contributed otherwise. But (Heinzi also said that, indirectly) : Even if the quality declines, there will still be enough momentum, particularly on Stack Overflow, to keep the site moving.

So I think the core of the reason of why it will have a limited effect on large network sites like Stack Overflow is:

The effect will not be visible to new users!

Nowadays, when you have a programming question (or error message), you type it into Google, and the "I'm feeling lucky" button could be labeled "I'm confident that the first result is the Stack Overflow Q/A that exactly solves my problem". But one day, people will think that it's normal that you sometimes have to step into the uncharted territory of "Page 2 of the Google search results" to find something that is really helpful. It will be normal that there are many duplicate/cr4p questions that remain on the site, or are even upvoted and answered. We'll be back at the point where there is not a one-stop high-quality Q/A site. But people will not miss what is sometimes referred to as "elitism" when they never really experienced the benefits of it.


1: Mainly referring to Stack Overflow here

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    The Google effect is already visible. Primary motivation for moderation in my case was doing myself a favor, because it is already hard to find answers to problems in some areas. It is not fun when you have to open 20 questions and go through 50+ answers trying to find answer to your problem. And you basically have to try it all because questions are poor so you cannot say whether you have same problem or not, and answers look like they might help you but more often they don't because they are solutions for slightly different issues. – Resistance Is Futile Nov 17 at 13:16
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    @HerMajestyQueenofARC feel my pain, as an ASP.NET Core dev right now, all the answers were for v 1 or 2.1 or 2.2, generally all of which have been made obsolete by the changes in 3.0, it only takes a small update to the Json lib MS uses to render a heap of the old answers useless, particularly the ones asking about more obscure features. – gbjbaanb Nov 17 at 15:38
  • Re "where there is not a one-stop high-quality Q/A site": I think this has already happened, at least in most major tags. I concur with @Her Majesty Queen of ARC about the noise level from all the poor questions. I don't find Stack Overflow to be an efficient research tool; usually blog posts and even YouTube are better (quicker to find an answer). – Peter Mortensen Nov 18 at 23:25
13

Any effect will take a long time to show (and the corollary of that is that when it does show, it'll take an extremely long time to fix).

So, right now the main sites have a lot of high-quality answers that keep people coming back to the site to read them. There will still be high-quality answers posted, but maybe not as many as before. What will happen over time is that as technology changes, new questions will be asked, but they will not get the same level of high-quality answers as before. The net result, a slow decline in quality, and thus a slowly decreasing relevance for Stack Overflow as a whole.

What this will result in is alternatives being sought out. For some types of questions, this is already happening. For example, Has SO become an anti-pattern.

Note that a few users make a disproportionate contribution so if you alienate those users, the quality of the site is certain to be affected. This is normal on most sites. The majority turn up to read what a few dedicated users create.

I imagine other sites will take up the slack and start to provide answers to programming questions in other ways. Pluralsight has released an extension to Visual Studio that prompts you with answers to questions you have, and links to snippets and short tutorials on that subject. It looks pretty cool, but it obviously requires a paid-for subscription, but many companies already have this as a perk.

Other sites might start up alternatives to SO. All it would take is for, say, GitHub that is already used for Microsoft documentation to open up a section for Q&A-style documentation and next thing you know (in Internet time), it'll be the go-to place for all answers to Microsoft stuff and Stack Overflow will be remembered in the same terms as Slashdot or MySpace.

8

It probably depends on which Stack Exchange site you're talking about. I've quit participating in writing SE, but I occasionally check in to it to see if anything interesting has come up. It seems much worse than before the current crisis (mostly low quality questions and few good answers). Software related sites may be faring better...

[Edit: for anybody who doesn't read comments: feedback says software related sites are faring poorly too]

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    "Software related sites may be faring better..." absolutely not... Stack Overflow is out of control for a long time now and it is getting worse with each new "positive" change. It is basically a swamp. – Resistance Is Futile Nov 17 at 11:02
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    @HerMajesty better description for SO might be "Wild West", with the infamous "Shoot first, ask later" applying. – Shadow The Princess Wizard Nov 17 at 11:29
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    @ShadowThePrincessWizard depends on what you mean by shoot first... but there are plenty of fastest guns in the West there, so Wild West is appropriate description. – Resistance Is Futile Nov 17 at 13:09
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    @HerMajestyQueenofARC well, most famous example of "shoot first" is Monica. Though that's not on SO, I just assumed people there also blame first, asking themselves if it's justified only later. :-( – Shadow The Princess Wizard Nov 17 at 13:28
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    @ShadowThePrincessWizard Ah, yes... happens all the time. – Resistance Is Futile Nov 17 at 13:43

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