In Chapter #2 of The Loop, the following graph is being shown:

10.6% of respondents consider the community unwelcoming

The blog post states the following as explanation for what it defines as "unwelcoming":

  1. Unwelcoming community (10.6% of responses): A perception of an unwelcoming community was the top thing that people found most frustrating or unappealing about Stack Overflow. We categorized responses that mentioned condescending or rude replies, and general comments about toxicity and lack of friendliness issues into this theme.

    “The toxic nature of the community… Scares people from even signing up let alone asking questions”

    “Some people are often condescending or rude”

Those two statements seem to be generalized to the point of meaning nothing at all. "The toxic nature of the community" implies that it's in the nature of the Stack Exchange community to be toxic, which is a statement I do not agree with from personal experience. It also does not explain exactly what "toxicity" is, only that it supposedly exists. Also the fact that people are supposedly scared to sign up or ask questions is in stark contrast to what the CEO claimed in his recent blog post:

In 2019, Stack Overflow added over 2.8 million answers and 2.6 million new questions, with over 1.7 million new users joining the community. There are now over 18 million questions and 27 million answers on Stack Overflow, and over 150,000 people sign up for a Stack Overflow account each month, 12 years after we started.

I also wonder how exactly one would measure how many people are too scared to sign up for Stack Exchange, given that I doubt they would answer a survey about Stack Exchange.

The second example being used claims "Some people are often condescending or rude", which has no information that is in any way usable. "Some things sometimes happen" is just as informative.

Furthermore, it is also very subjective. The phrase

This answer does not answer the question at all.

could be interpreted as being neutral in tone (as it states a fact), or as being rude and condescending.

As such, my question is simply put: What exactly about the community is so toxic and unwelcoming?

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    To sum it up: everything that prevents users from getting their answer for free is considered as "toxic" by them. They want your time for free and our rules don't matter to them, so answer or be called "toxic".
    – Tom
    Commented Jan 23, 2020 at 12:12
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    That word has been thrown around so much that it almost has no meaning behind it. People think SO is a support desk and because their needs are not met, they deem the site to be "toxic" or "unsatisfactory". It's a fundamental failing by SE to communicate clearly to new users about what this site IS NOT. At this point, "toxic" is that which goes against me.
    – Script47
    Commented Jan 23, 2020 at 12:47
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    We don't really know what people mean when they said unwelcoming. Indeed, it can mean a lot of different things. The statistics about is probably not very useful. We would need additional investigation into what specifically is meant. Commented Jan 23, 2020 at 13:07
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    @Script47 There's an increasing amount of users that simply (and openly) blame the community for not answering their question while it's wildly off-topic. We get accused of the strangest things.
    – Mast
    Commented Jan 23, 2020 at 13:10
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    We need some clarity, was a comment left? Anonymized, what was the comment? Was the question dved/closed? Well, take all those out of "unwelcoming" because that's how the site is meant to work. As it stands, what classes as "unwelcoming" is this amorphous blob which could be anything from comments, to dvs, to cvs, to misunderstandings, and in some cases actually "toxic" comments. One might say that's an awful lot of work, but, in reality, this is the standard of research that should be applied if folks are changing the whole network based on this feedback.
    – Script47
    Commented Jan 23, 2020 at 13:10
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    @Script47 Because once you answer it, this is what you have to roll with. It's much more convenient for SE, Inc. to keep up this illusion of "general toxicity" to make it whatever it needs to be at the moment.
    – MechMK1
    Commented Jan 23, 2020 at 13:19
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    I tried to explain to someone on physics SE yesterday that the site wasn't meant to have us validate new theories, or disprove assertions of others. I even went on to explain that I thought their question could actually be edited so that it was on-topic. Naturally, they accused me and three others (who respectfully pointed out the problems to help fix the question) of "trolling". Sometimes you just can't win.
    – JMac
    Commented Jan 23, 2020 at 14:00
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    @JMac "Your question is off-topic.", says the 100k rep user, who has been active on the site since Area51. "No, you have no clue", replies the 1 rep user.
    – MechMK1
    Commented Jan 23, 2020 at 14:02
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    @JMac yes, unfortunately this is the case with many users but the issue is that SE approached this issue as a "welcoming" issue rather than an issue on both sides (some bad apples and some inexperienced users who misunderstand the site) so the people that do contribute feel things closing around them as they are vilified further and further.
    – Script47
    Commented Jan 23, 2020 at 14:03
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    @MechMK1 It wasn't even "you have no clue". It was more "you're crippling scientific advancement. One day I will show people this and they will see your foolishness once I'm famous for this discovery that will change physics". I never even once said their theory was wrong; just that Physics SE wasn't the site to deal with it. In this case they may have come looking for enemies; but I can't rule out that the person just didn't understand the site and was too caught up in their narrative to see it from the other end.
    – JMac
    Commented Jan 23, 2020 at 14:06
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    (a) don't give examples => no evidence. (b) give one example => you're unfairly targeting someone. (c) give multiple examples => you're cherry picking. You can't win. Commented Jan 23, 2020 at 14:48
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    36 more elaborate examples (though, with selection bias). Commented Jan 23, 2020 at 21:13
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    The most toxic thing is how "the community" is portrayed. I'm so tired of this. There is a quote (sometimes attributed to Klaus Kinski, very roughly translated to English here): "When it is seen from below, excellence looks like arrogance". We can assume that what is often called "toxicity" boils down to someone perceiving this sort of "arrogance" here...
    – Marco13
    Commented Jan 24, 2020 at 0:48
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    The "moderation" done by "high-experience" users is my main problem with SE and leads to a lot of toxicity. Arrogance is a very critical problem! And I do think it's arrogance, not excellence, as @Marco suggested. I have seen dozens of questions which were absolutely valid, maybe not on point, but a valid question. And I saw so many of them being downvoted/closed/whatever by those said users, because they seem to not even try to understand the asking user and offer him help.
    – Kevin
    Commented Feb 3, 2020 at 12:46
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    You can find good examples for the toxicity in the comments and answers here. It's always "new users are lazy and stubborn" vs "high-rep users are misusing their privileges". It's frustrating to read the discussion here where many people deny even the possibility that it could be perceived toxic. This discussion is going on for years and I don't see any progress. Commented Apr 19, 2020 at 6:31

17 Answers 17


There are a few different reasons that people perceive Stack Overflow - and, to a lesser extent, the other Stack Exchange sites - as toxic. Let's get into a few of them.

The most major reason, in my opinion, is this one:

  • Barrier to participation and learning curve

    There is a really steep learning curve for the site. Stack Overflow is, objectively, really different from most sites on the internet. We don't take subjective questions. We don't allow open-ended requests. We don't allow polls. We don't even allow posts about computers that aren't directly programming.
    If you arrive from Reddit or Quora, you're going to encounter a massive culture shock. It's just so different in what's acceptable here.

    So when someone arrives, and they post something that would be acceptable anywhere else on the internet, and within ten minutes they've been downvoted twelve times, had their question closed so that nobody can answer, and had three comments telling them that their question wasn't acceptable... that's frustrating, to say the least.

    It takes a bit to learn how to properly ask a question on SO - and to learn when a question would fit better on SU or SF, for example. In the interim, you get slammed with downvotes and closures and comments. It's easy to feel attacked.

That leads to the next point:

  • Harsh moderation

    Moderation on SO is often quick. BAM, question closed. BAM, stock comment posted telling you your question is too broad. BAM, twelve downvotes. It can happen in less than ten minutes.

    And when that happens, and people get frustrated, sometimes they start responding. They're annoyed, so their responses can get heated. And while, for instance, swearing is acceptable on other sites, here it can earn you a suspension really fast. So not only are you desperate for an answer, your question has just been closed and downvoted, you've been left with a brusque comment, you're now also suspended for expressing your frustration.

  • Rude comments

    We like to pretend that we have a handle on rude comments. Someone posts a rude comment - it's quickly flagged and deleted. But often, that's too late: the person who the comment was directed at has often already read it.
    And yes, there are a lot of rude and brusque comments on SO. I've seen it - someone asks a question that needs work, and someone with absolutely zero tact and subtlety leaves a comment essentially yelling at them. It's more common than we like to think about.

  • Aggressive duplicate closure

    Personal story time! When I first joined the network, my second-ever question on the network, posted November 22, 2014, on Science Fiction & Fantasy, was Why can't Harry see the Thestrals before seeing Cedric die? It was closed 67 minutes after I asked it as a duplicate of a question that wasn't the same question I asked at all.

    Now, the answer to the question I had asked was contained in the answers to the other question, but still - I was annoyed. The question was obviously different from the question it was closed as; why was it being marked as a duplicate?!

    From keeping an eye on keywords like "Stack Overflow" in different realms of the internet (such as Twitter), I gathered that this is a really common thing to have happen on SO. A question gets closed as a duplicate of a similar, but different question, and very often the OP doesn't understand why. Sometimes the duplicate doesn't even help them. They then get frustrated.

  • Misunderstanding the purpose of SO

    Stack Overflow has gained the reputation of being the place for answers to programming questions. As a result, people flock to SO in the hopes of getting an answer - expecting an answer, often needing an answer. They think that the purpose of SO is to answer their questions.

    But it's not. The real point of SO is the answers to good questions. It's not intended to be the place to get an answer for any question you might have; it's supposed to be an information source like Wikipedia: a repository of high quality answers and questions.

    But... that's not the reputation SO earned. Since SO has a reputation of being the "answer your question" place, users are frustrated and annoyed when that's not what they find.

  • A bit of elitism

    Time to be controversial. The Stack Overflow community suffers from a bit of elitism. The simple questions that seem easy to them but might be making a new programmer cry just don't interest them. They find them boring and easy, and figure that since it's easy to them, obviously the asker simply didn't do her research properly.

    This leads to poor reception of questions that don't fit exactly with what the SO regulars are expecting and want - including perceived "easy" questions.

  • Ungrateful and entitled askers

    New users trying to provide an answer sometimes encounter the very worst examples of askers. You know, the ones who demand an answer, refuse to improve their question, don't cooperate with requests for more information, and then, when they do get an answer, immediately start demanding more and more from that answerer.


    I've seen accounts that these are a real deterrent to those just starting out answering. And, let's face it, to those who aren't just starting out.

And then of course, there are the ones that are a bit harder to pinpoint specific examples. A common complaint I've seen is that the place is filled with "tech-bros". Everything is written and considered from a male perspective, including stuff like offensive nicknames for regexes and the like. The constant usage of "dude" and "bro". The ever-present "sir". And there are really weird cases where grateful askers will leave a comment like "I wish you good food and pleasant women" (yes, I have actually seen this) which is just like... what?

So what is the overarching main factor behind people being frustrated with the site and thinking of it as a toxic place?

It boils down to a lack of guidance for new users. There's a lack of educating users how to ask good questions, or write good answers. There's no addressing their misconceptions of what the point of the site is. There's no real guidance for users on how to adjust to SO coming from the very different internet at large. And so they trip and fall and give up, because there were no lessons on how to properly use the site. If we can teach new users what to expect and how to use the site before they post, that would eliminate a lot of the problems.

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    A lack of guidance for new users is what I personally think is the actual culprit. I would like SE, Inc to frame the problem much more like "How can we help new users to contribute high-quality content?" and less like "How can we prevent the community from disliking low-quality content?"
    – MechMK1
    Commented Jan 23, 2020 at 13:30
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    The thing is, that the help page - which exists exactly for this - is just ignored by most new users. Even if the help page was perfect and teached the user everything he really needs to know, it would lead to nowhere as it is not being read by the new users before they post their first question. Just like many programmers don't read documentation and then get angry because their code doesn't work.
    – kscherrer
    Commented Jan 23, 2020 at 13:43
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    @kscherrer - The help center also isn't exactly designed to be easy to read-through. It's written more as a reference than as a tutorial. That, and it's not linked to in the UI nearly often enough.
    – Mithical
    Commented Jan 23, 2020 at 13:44
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    @Mithical the tour seems perfect and outlines the basic dos and don'ts yet still we have issues because kscherrer is right. People want to simply have their issues fixed, not integrate into the idea of building an archive of quality Q&As hence a the support desk mentality.
    – Script47
    Commented Jan 23, 2020 at 15:06
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    Can we be more welcoming by managing expectations?
    – Raedwald
    Commented Jan 23, 2020 at 15:37
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    The tour actually encourages a misunderstanding of the purpose of the SE network. “Ask questions, get answers, no distractions”. “This site is about getting answers”, but the first step in the tour is not looking for an existing answer, it’s asking your question. The only mention of searching is finding interesting questions, not seeing if your question has already been answered. It also ignores that often the best way for someone to get help is to visit the site’s chat room. The community starts out in a bad position due to mismanaged expectations.
    – ColleenV
    Commented Jan 23, 2020 at 21:33
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    Re "a lack of guidance for new users": Yes, user expectations are poorly managed. The question interface now does a little bit, but on the whole it fuels the forum expectation (time scale of days or even weeks, when the attention on Stack Overflow only lasts minutes and perhaps hours). E.g. there is nothing about staying around to promptly respond to any comments. Commented Jan 23, 2020 at 23:38
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    Closure as duplicate is severely misunderstood; it's not a slap-down, it's a way of saying "hey, the answer you want is over there". In other words, it's a way of answering a question. But with that said, it's easy to understand why people don't see it that way, but I'm not sure what the solution is. More and better information is always suggested, but in my experience people never read the readme. Commented Jan 24, 2020 at 3:33
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    Fantastic answer. Fantastic understanding of the dynamics of the interactions between the established community and new members.
    – tmpearce
    Commented Jan 24, 2020 at 3:49
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    @MaximusMinimus Actually, that's not quite right, duplicates are designed to be used to link identical questions, not to link a related answer from a different question. This of course stands in contrast to how they are actually used in different places on the site, but it is how they were designed to be used. Commented Jan 24, 2020 at 4:34
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    I disagree with elitism point. I didn't suffer myself from it and if I ever vote-closed easy question as duplicate, then sorry, this is how site works. This was lack of research. Unless I see what OP lacks knowledges to find duplicate themself (e.g. he doesn't know term or concept).
    – Sinatr
    Commented Jan 24, 2020 at 9:09
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    Of course, the problem with a lack of guidance for new users is that no one wants to endure a training course to post their question or begin participating in the community. It's almost like the way to fix all this would be to prevent users from asking questions would be to wait until they have some level of rep and positively-reviewed contributions to the site already. IOW, making asking the community a question and getting answers an earned privilege, not a default ability.
    – TylerH
    Commented Jan 24, 2020 at 15:10
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    "Everything is written and considered from a male perspective, including stuff like offensive nicknames for regexes and the like." - I'm drawing a blank on what this could be talking about, could someone explain / provide an example?
    – Shiny
    Commented Feb 3, 2020 at 9:55

In the eyes of the newbies:

  • Downvotes are considered toxic.

  • Closure of a question is considered super toxic.

  • Any comment trying to explain any of the above is considered toxic.

The Welcome Wagon started in attempt to solve this, but judging by that blog post and other actions of SE, it utterly failed.

  • 95
    Short answers like this one are toxic. Comments criticizing an answer are super toxic.
    – MechMK1
    Commented Jan 23, 2020 at 12:00
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    Comments by a low-rep user criticizing a high-rep user are very toxic as well. Double-comments several minutes apart are toxic spam as well.
    – MechMK1
    Commented Jan 23, 2020 at 12:09
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    Honestly, I disagree. There are plenty of polite newbies, that try their best. Give them polite feedback, and they will act accordingly and improve their input. That happens all the time. So: it is bad enough that other people overly use that term toxic ... but we should stay away from doing so.
    – GhostCat
    Commented Jan 23, 2020 at 12:13
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    @GhostCatsalutesMonicaC. I am active on Information Security and I have seen both. I have seen newcomers who tried to write questions that were relevant and on-topic, and these people have received nothing but help from everyone in the community. And I have seen newcomers who wrote utter garbage and then insulted those who told them their question was off-topic. It's the latter who complain about the community being unwelcoming, and by extension those for whom the network will be shaped.
    – MechMK1
    Commented Jan 23, 2020 at 12:16
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    @MechMK1 No need to tell me about such users. stackoverflow actually has a term for such people: "help vampires" ... just because they are such an annoyance. But luckily, they are also the exception. Those that dont listen at all, and get defensive immediately make up less than 5% imho. Sure, there are 10 to 30 % that don't get rude explicitly, but that also ignore most input and just stay silent.
    – GhostCat
    Commented Jan 23, 2020 at 12:19
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    @GhostCatsalutesMonicaC. I assume the others are those who have adopted a "Just give me teh codez" mindset, with no intention to contribute further and who just expect random strangers to solve their problems.
    – MechMK1
    Commented Jan 23, 2020 at 12:24
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    @Ghost sure there are, but it's a drop in a huge ocean. I've seen more than a few people come here to MSE to complain about downvotes they get, and when they realized "that's how it works, deal with it", they were gone, often with loud bang of the door behind them. Commented Jan 23, 2020 at 12:37
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    If you wanted an example of this attitude being displayed by more than just 'newbies' and explicitly linked to welcoming: meta.stackoverflow.com/revisions/366783/1. I had glanced at that recently after the recent action overriding moderators on use of the featured tag cited a perceived combative and hurtful tone.
    – bitnine
    Commented Jan 23, 2020 at 13:38
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    The very usage of the fad word "toxic" within the survey is also leading as well, to hell? We are not allowed to criticise survey maker's credentials, but how are we not to? I'd like this one repeated with "How welcome did you feel?" Commented Jan 23, 2020 at 21:36
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    So that's your solution, then? Dismiss anybody who complains? The amount of upvotes on this answer seem to suggest it. Commented Jan 23, 2020 at 22:15
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    @AndreasHaferburg are you purposely misconstruing the answer to suit your own opinion? Where does it say to dismiss anybody who complains? The amount of up-votes suggests that people agree that new users have fundamentally understood the core features of the site. Take a look through MSO suggestions and you'll see a myriad of solutions proposed by many many users but have been ignored and left to gather dust.
    – Script47
    Commented Jan 23, 2020 at 22:37
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    Uh huh. "Any comment trying to explain [downvotes or close votes] is considered toxic" How is that a fact? I call that hyperbole. And what is the purpose of hyperbole if not to make a problem appear ridiculous so it can be dismissed? Commented Jan 24, 2020 at 0:13
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    @AndreasHaferburg and saying the community isn't "welcoming" or is "toxic" due to a small subset is what exactly? Factual? Hyperbolic? Lies?
    – Script47
    Commented Jan 24, 2020 at 0:22
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    @wimi exactly my point. You choose to see this answer as offending/mocking. That's not my intention, but people choose to feel attacked and offended by anyone who think in different way or criticize them. Commented Feb 1, 2020 at 17:01
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    @wimi it's generalized on purpose, and not the purpose you think of mocking. I could say "Some new users [...]" but that won't deliver my own feeling. I know not all new users are like that, but the overall feeling, and the way SE itself is going, lead me to feel it's all of them, and the long time users are bashed for trying to keep quality in check by downvotes, close votes, and delete votes. The answer in an opinion, not a fact. Not good for Q&A, I know, but Meta sometimes allows such things. Commented Feb 2, 2020 at 7:57

Those two statements seem to be generalized to the point of meaning nothing at all.

Sure. But that is the thing when one tries to compile/reduce a large number of single sentence answers into "meaningful" messages. Yet, we all know that this "issue" of toxicity and the underlying conflicts have existed since, like, ever?!

For me, the really annoying part is: it just feels like a déjà vu. This comes up over and over again. And it feels like every time people run around like beheaded chicken bumping into each other. Whereas, what should happen:

  • Align on a lasting strategy and vision.
  • Implement that, and measure effects.
  • Adapt, and measure.
  • Repeat.

And honestly, at some point: accept reality. There are only two choices:

  • Have a Q&A site that wants a certain level of quality. Such a place can not (by definition!) accept any kind of user input. This place must be unwelcoming to certain input, by definition.
  • If you want to accept any kind of user input, have a dedicated "help" place, where people can post whatever thing they want to.

Of course, few sane experts will be willing to spend their time on that "help ground". You see, it is really neat for a developer to tell his peers "look, I got the legendary badge on Stack Overflow". I really doubt that many expert users would be interested to be legendary on "programming kindergarten pre-school".

And even those (true) heroes, that are solely motivated by helping each individual asking for help ... even those get worn out at some point. I have seen more than once how some "I try to help always" user in the end, gave up. Interacting with 3 to 5 "help vampires" can eat up that "I just want to help" attitude, quickly and for good.

Finally: of course, there is also simply toxic, inappropriate behavior from more experienced users towards unexperienced newbies. Few newbies are actually "help vampires", but on the other hand: few experienced users are constantly rude. And sure, there is always room for improvement, but I also think that this can't be fixed perfectly. We are all humans, and only few manage to always do the right thing. So, as long as humans come together in such communities, there will be unpleasant interactions. That isn't an excuse, just: a reality we also have to accept.

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    StackExchange has always been about having high-quality content. A requirement for high-quality content necessitates that some people will be filtered out. I consider this filter to be the defining feature of Stack Exchange and not a bug to be eliminated.
    – MechMK1
    Commented Jan 23, 2020 at 12:31
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    True. But this place also added gamification as motivation factor. Also from early on. And that immediately raises the conflict between upholding quality and "upvotes upvotes upvotes".
    – GhostCat
    Commented Jan 23, 2020 at 12:35
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    @MechMK1, but that defining feature makes Stack Exchange to be a "non welcoming" to "toxic" environment for help vampires. Commented Jan 23, 2020 at 12:36
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    @BartvanIngenSchenau Toxic for the vampires (I smell garlic), but also hard for "first day beginners".
    – GhostCat
    Commented Jan 23, 2020 at 12:38
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    @GhostCatsalutesMonicaC. I agree, which is why I think the actual problem is "Beginners don't know how to write high-quality content" and not "The community reacts badly to low-quality content".
    – MechMK1
    Commented Jan 23, 2020 at 12:49
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    But I think some of the criticism is valid. If some high-rep user can't be bothered to actually read the question, just skims for keywords, and unjustly closes it, it is far too difficult to have the closing reversed. Commented Jan 23, 2020 at 23:55
  • @PeterMortensen True. Added another paragraph to cover that part.
    – GhostCat
    Commented Jan 24, 2020 at 8:11
  • SO has loads of "high quality" content. Its getting less and less userful, I can see why some consider SO harmful. popular votes are not the same as curation for quality.
    – gbjbaanb
    Commented Jan 24, 2020 at 11:54
  • @gbjbaanb That would be the next level I guess. Some way where maybe 5 or 10 gold badge holders for a tag ... can force that some answer gets a big warning sign on it.
    – GhostCat
    Commented Jan 24, 2020 at 15:00

I would like to present a unbiased common man perspective here. I was a regular Stack Overflow consumer & attracted towards contribution by a friend's reputation ecstasy. That's the trigger. After that I didn't look back. The learning experience tied me to Stack Overflow forever.

I learned the core principles of Stack Overflow over a period of time, understood them & trying to explain the people in need.

Still my friends faced lot of criticisms, harsh treatments, unhelpful moments - which is totally understandable from SO contributor perspective and the sad part from the OP friend perspective as well. It's a continuous process and a neverending perpetual process till every single born baby understand what Stack Overflow is.

One of my friend shared this to me in WhatsApp & said "SO in a nutshell". Surprisingly, every time I read this I got different opinion.

Enter image description here

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    Hi, I have problems catching mice, any advice please? is too broad. There is no way to properly answer this question, short of writing dozens of pages about catching mice. Therefore, it is off-topic for our platform, and all the answering (or commenting) felines should have voted to close the question instead. There was a time when most SO users understood this, but alas, that time has long passed. Commented Jan 23, 2020 at 16:52
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    @FrédéricHamidi, the point is that’s the title, the description should have code, error, attempt, investigation details, etc to make it unique. If we can come up with AI to judge it then our review queue will be empty I believe :) Commented Jan 23, 2020 at 16:59
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    Let’s not forget for whom we are building this QA site for. This site is for them by them.. :) let’s be more inclusive.. Commented Jan 23, 2020 at 17:05
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    I see your point, but it should be a better title then. The title is the only thing that is readily available a first glance from the question list page, and it is very important to get it right. As unfair as it may seem, the quality of your title can make or break your question. In this specific example, the title definitely should state the exact problem the asking feline has with catching mice. Commented Jan 23, 2020 at 17:05
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    Also, we have tried being more inclusive, and it has led us here. Not a great success in my book. Commented Jan 23, 2020 at 17:06
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    @FrédéricHamidi, agreed. At the same time - We all will agree that we are cat, Jaguar, tiger, lion at some point of time in that analogy. I feel just empathy is the need of the hour. :) Commented Jan 23, 2020 at 17:09
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    Anybody who thinks that replies like that are uniquely characteristic of Stack Overflow has never visited any other place on the internet where random strangers respond to questions. You can and do get the same on reddit, mailing lists, chat, forums... Except on Stack Overflow we are -- were -- empowered to do something about them.
    – jscs
    Commented Jan 23, 2020 at 20:52
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    Commenters: "What have you tried so far?" OP: _*adds image of live squirrel and link to fishing tutorial* ;-) Commented Jan 24, 2020 at 0:11
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    @Don'tPanic, squirrel fishing?
    – Mark
    Commented Jan 24, 2020 at 1:18
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    What's the picking on cats anyway?
    – GhostCat
    Commented Jan 24, 2020 at 8:12
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    @ArunVinoth Actually the site is more 'for everyone, by us'; 'them' has no place in either side of the phrase.
    – TylerH
    Commented Jan 24, 2020 at 15:04
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    The problem with the comic strip starts at "any advice?" That does not fit into SO. That cat would get better answers if the question was posted on 4Chan (even if it were about programming and not mice). You go to SO, you have to provide a minimal, reproducible example. Commented Jan 24, 2020 at 21:30
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    The point of the cartoon, is not whether the cat's title was off-topic to start off with. The point is it was immediately dismissed, and nobody even said "Hello, thank you for your question. In order to receive a good answer, you should tell us what technique you have been using to catch mice so far. And,whether this failure is a recent development or not. Please supply details, until then, the question will probably be closed. See the Help Centre (link) on how to reopen a question. Best of luck! Commented Jun 14, 2020 at 6:19
  • 1
    Admittedly that's a really long comment, but smart users know how to copy and paste comments on clipboards. I wish I did... Commented Jun 14, 2020 at 6:20
  • 1
    @Mari-LouA, thank you so much for stressing that directional guide to take a different perspective.. cheers. Commented Jun 14, 2020 at 12:02

I would suggest: not very much.

There is a difference between being "unwelcoming", "unfriendly", and being "toxic", but yet here we are in 2020 with an assumed state of toxicity.

How do we define a toxic community? This seems as good as anything else: Ten Unmistakable Signs Of A Toxic Culture (forbes.com):

  • People don't communicate, don't smile, don't joke and don't reinforce one another.
  • People are very concerned about titles, job descriptions and levels in the hierarchy.
  • Rules and policies are very important ... more important than the good judgment of your teammates.
  • Managers and employees make up two completely separate groups that seldom interact.
  • While it's well known that employees are unhappy, nobody talks about it openly.
  • There is much talk about infractions and demerits.
  • People do not speak up even when they are presented with impossible goals, ridiculous plans or patently stupid ideas...
  • The informal grapevine is many times more effective as a communications network than any type of official company communication.
  • Employees have little to no latitude in performing their jobs.
  • Fear is palpable in the environment...

We can look over what the SE community does, how it behaves, and we see that few if any of those apply. However, if we look at the behaviour of SE Management, we see them ticking every single box.

It is not the SE community that is toxic, it is SE Management.

"Toxic" is an accusation that is being levelled at the community by Management, with little in the way of real evidence to back it up, it is an assumed state of the community, and we should not be accepting it.

True, we can be unfriendly to new people, we can be blunt, we can be unwelcoming, and we can certainly go a long way to address those faults, but whatever else we are, we are not "toxic".

  • 3
    While I agree with many of the points you make, I do not agree with your conclusion. It is not SE Management that is toxic. It is the cultural environment that SE Management finds itself in that is toxic. That's not to let SE Management off the hook. There are things that they ought to change, both individually and as a group. But there are ways in which the culture has a force of its own that is independent of the "planned culture" that SE may have had a decade or more in the past. Commented Jun 14, 2020 at 16:10
  • I'd like to add that the bullet points you've outlined here seem more like 'practical signs' some scenario might be toxic, not a 'definition' of toxicity per se. For instance "People don't communicate, don't smile, don't joke and don't reinforce one another." Here, people not communicating etc might not necessarily be toxic (maybe they're just not talkative folks), but people not being talkative etc might also be a big sign that something bad is going on and that they feel silenced etc. edit: yeah, taking a second look, that's exactly what the article is titled, "signs that...". not a defn
    – ness
    Commented May 18 at 10:47

Toxic is in the eye of the beholder

At present, what is toxic in Stack land is the consistent lack of effort put into questions, and some answers. It's off putting. To me, anyway. But I saw it differently when I first joined.

You ask:

What exactly about the community is so toxic and unwelcoming?

As a new user, my answer is simple: the SE community in 2015 when I joined talked at you, not to you, if they communicated with you at all. That is unwelcoming. The tone was not neutral, in most cases, though a few users stood out because that did talk to you, not at you. (Oh, heck, why not a shout out to @NeilSlater and @NathanTuggy for their being welcoming voices, to my ear).

Now, as a user for not quite 5 years, and as someone who spends time in the review queues on five different SE's, what is toxic to me now, what makes me reluctant to sign on, is the blatant disregard for a fundamental aim of the stack model: high signal to noise ratio. A result of the attempt to be more welcoming has created an empowerment zone for "how dare you down vote my valid opinion?" when this network is not about opinions. That's what forums are for. Granted, when I report comments like that they usually go away, but the friction is present in a lot of interactions. That friction is the problem that SE/SO seems to be trying to solve.

Whatever it is that the company is trying to do to lubricate the friction in the varied user experiences - old user, new user, and people like me, somewhere in between - I don't think it's working. Or, maybe it's a work in progress and maybe "we'll get there."

In one of the stacks that I frequent, I made the observation that a stack cannot be all things to all people. It was kind of ironic that I made that post, since I have made a number of complaints that the new user experience stinks due to (1) the community attitude of talking at people, not to them, as a cultural norm that developed over time and (2) how tone comes across in a text based communication medium. Sometimes, what isn't intended as abrasive is received that way. I am sure some of the stuff that I post or comment on in a neutral tone can be received as abrasive.

Caveat: depending upon whom you interact with, that (caustic tone) isn't always the case. Tone, sent and received, can be very user dependent.

The attraction remains: lots of signal, not as much noise. Rare for any internet site.

I went and adapted to the unique model that is Stackland, and even defended it when I still had frustrations with the internal cultural norms of Stackland. Now, the PTB want to let the noise makers in by laying out a welcome mat while at the same time dispensing with community managers ... without replacement? (Odd choice, thinks I). That, the addition of noise rather than signal, is a toxin that I can get anywhere on the internet.

Stackland was supposed to be different.

PS: Can we all adapt a non caustic tone? We can all work on it, but let's be realistic here. An organization that runs on the input of volunteers is hard to run. (I've mentioned that elsewhere on MSE, in terms of my experiences with that). Coming up with a unified "voice" isn't going to happen when hundreds of thousands of voices are speaking.

  • But there is a certain expectation out there on how to accommodate beginners. How would you manage that expectation, both when they actually come to Stack Overflow to ask questions and the general public image? Commented Jan 24, 2020 at 22:08
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    @PeterMortensen I don't treat newcomers as rudely as I was treated - and with people who show the effort to get it as right as they can arrive, I try to be as welcoming as I can. And yet, I have, in the last three months, as I try to help new users in a spirit of helpfulness, to adapt as I did, get very caustic feedback from the same new users. And some new users respond warmly. So, to you I say: Every New User Isn't The Same Person. Beyond that, If you are trying to play expectations management for a few hundred thousand people ... good luck. I don't do stuff that hard for free. Commented Jan 24, 2020 at 22:46

Your post is phrased as a question, but all you do is argue in favor of a certain point you're trying to make. You put toxicity in quotes as if to imply that it doesn't actually exist. You use words like supposedly when you quote. That is not the start of a fruitful discussion. You're setting yourself up to attacking and defending, winning vs. losing. That can also be seen in the comments that you're leaving, where you turn to unwarranted sarcasm. The purpose of sarcasm in a group setting is to divide the group. What is it that you're trying to achieve?

I think you get hung up on the word community. And I think it's one of the factors making discussions difficult.

There is not one community on SO.

The C++ tag is attracting very different people than the Go tag or PHP tag, and time zones might be a factor as well. It's not a community, it's thousands of people that you or I have nothing in common with, and we only interact with some of them. So trying to generalize is pointless, and so is a sentence like "The community is toxic". It might make more sense to say something like "people didn't like the way they were treated".

It doesn't feel like a community when the people you interact with are more interested in gatekeeping than including others when working towards a common goal. The question is not "how can we salvage this question?" or "how can this question become useful to others?"

Questions are getting closed without any comment, and the asker doesn't have a say in the matter. It's a decision by some nebulous moderators that you have no obvious way of interacting with, for unknown reasons, with no obvious way to appeal the decision.

Another issue are the drive-by downvotes. You research a problem, invest time and effort in the post, and all you get is a couple of downvotes, for no obvious reasons. It feels like a slap in the face. It happened too often to me (that means a couple of times) that I just don't want to post questions anymore.

One recurring theme I see on Hacker News (HN) is that people are getting tired of SO, so they leave. And I believe SO is worse off without them. I don't believe these problems are limited to new users, at all. Attrition is real, and I believe it is a much worse problem than not being nice enough to newbies. I don't care that some student didn't get his homework question closed nicely enough. What I do care about is good people being driven away by abusive behavior. And not only because nice people leave, but for evolutionary reasons: It tilts the population towards being less nice on average, and more thick-skinned on average.

The design of SO facilitates judgmental behavior. Downvotes and close votes are easily abused. I have no idea why I get to vote as a moderator on tags that I have never interacted with. Why is it that I get to decide whether a certain question on C# is a duplicate of another one, when I have written about 100 lines of C# in my life? That is something that only the asker should be able to decide: Here, look at this other question, do these answers help you? It should not be a question to moderators, it should be a question to the asker. They should at least have a say in the matter.

And why have downvotes at all? I downvoted your question because I didn't like the way that it is phrased. I also did it because I am judging your behavior in the comments, which I'm not 100% okay with. I don't know you; all I see is this small window in the form of one question. But I have already decided that I don't like you. I'm probably a bad person for being so quick to judge somebody I've never met. You're posting on Meta, so you probably really care about the site. Yet I clicked that little downwards arrow, just to spite you. It was super easy, and normally there are no social repercussions because it's completely anonymous. Nobody would ever have known that it was me if I hadn't confessed here (so now I might get downvoted out of spite). So, yea. I did it, mostly because I could. But does that make SO better in any way? Is that helpful to anybody involved? I doubt it. What is the goal? Do downvotes bring us any closer to that goal? Downvotes should either be removed, or not be anonymous (" downvoted with the following suggestion: ..."). Maybe a downvote should be tied to a condition: "Please fix this issue with your post, I'll rescind the downvote once you have." Currently, downvotes do more harm than good.

I think overall it's pretty similar to the social problems around code reviews. Imagine if the tools for doing code reviews at your company would be anonymous votes and reject votes to revert commits.

  • 9
    wow, great answer! The downvotes you got totally make your point valid: it proves the existence of drive by downgrading. Commented Jan 24, 2020 at 4:28
  • 2
    Yeah ... The title is "What's wrong with my code", and the body of the question contains a bunch of badly formatted code only. Letting this garbage freely flow in makes sure the "nice users" are flowing out faster than you make your friendly comments to those posts. Posting such questions shows total lack of respect the voluteer work the community members do.
    – Teemu
    Commented Jan 24, 2020 at 10:39
  • 8
    @Teemu I do understand people being frustrated with users who don't understand how SO works. But if you see a low quality question, and you don't have the patience to explain why it's bad, walk away. Any other behavior is toxic and gatekeeping. You're so emotional about it that you call a question garbage. You do realize that it was a human who wrote that, right? Lower the pitchfork... But I don't think that is the biggest problem, I don't care too much about new users. What I do care about is alienating veteran users, because they're the ones capable of contributing quality content. Commented Jan 24, 2020 at 11:43
  • 1
    I'm not emotional, but sometimes there are literally gargabe characters to circumvent the requirement of the explanation of the decent lenght = ). I'm not walking away from these, I have been voting to close, and I will vote to close, as long as it is possible. If there's even a small sign of a try, and nobody else haven't commented it yet, I most often put a couple of words to explain what is wrong. But don't expect me to be hypocrat, I'll say what's wrong with the post strightly, did OP liked it or not. That doesn't mean rude wording, but not hyperpolite wording either.
    – Teemu
    Commented Jan 24, 2020 at 11:57
  • 12
    @GwenKillerby: Downvotes on a meta answer that mentions drive-by downvoting prove it's correct? Really? I find the alternative hypothesis — that the downvoters disagreed with the answer or found it unhelpfully worded — to be much more compelling. (Edit: It's also fair to point out that, as seen from the timeline, the second downvote came in at least two hours after the answer was posted. That's not "drive-by" by any reasonable standard.) Commented Jan 25, 2020 at 9:37
  • 1
    @NathanTuggy Downvotes for answers I don't see too much as a problem, especially on meta. I quite expected to be downvoted here. What I find annoying on SO is downvotes on questions. What did you mean by the timeline thing? To me, drive-by means that the downvoter doesn't explain why they downvoted. The issue is not that I question the downvote. But as the asker, it leaves you with feelings of helplessness and being out of control, because there's nothing you can do about it. And it also kind of implies that your question was so terrible that you don't even deserve a comment. Commented Jan 25, 2020 at 21:28
  • @Teemu it's more like, imagine if the pull request system were opened to the general public, and everyone was trying to use it to report bugs instead of using the issue tracker (and, of course, not providing steps to reproduce). Commented Nov 26, 2023 at 8:29

In response to some of the answers here stating that new users are inherently averse to appropriate criticism, this is certainly true to a certain extent. However, to simply stop after making that point is implicitly conceding that nothing can be done, which is not true at all.

A comment like

This answer does not answer the question at all.

While maybe entirely factual, could easily be seen as uninviting / discouraging. It can be helpful to realize that though you may post a comment like this publicly, it is in some sense directed at a specific person. If we care about making people feel more welcome / respected, then a good principle to stick to is that when you introduce criticism, it should be accompanied by a greater amount understanding. For example, here are some revisions of this comment that may be just as accurate, but actually make the answer-er feel welcome and compelled to fix their answer or rethink it.

This answer seems to miss the direct point of the question. You have addressed a certain related issue ... , but it appears the questioner is more interested in specifically ...


It seems your answer may have misinterpreted this key detail ..., the questioner is looking for a solution that satisfies this requirement ...

Without this added attempt at understanding, if a new user makes a mistake, they are left in a situation where they likely don't know what they did wrong, but they do know that their contribution was not valued. This is sure to make someone feel like an outsider.

  • 4
    Good point. Which speaks for carefully crafted canned comments for the standard / common scenarios (with parameters for the specifics). Commented Jan 24, 2020 at 1:55
  • 2
    this is a great point, which demonstrates far more civility and understanding than I personally have the energy for, when dealing with a group as tone deaf as SO moderators/downgraders. Commented Jan 24, 2020 at 5:03

Bad message distribution

(This is in addition to the other great answers).

SO is like an eternal global meeting of experts, like a hall with venerable experts sitting at the front, and others sitting in the back.

Asking a question currently is like going on stage in front of this audience and speaking sentences into a microphone for the whole congregation to hear.

That's not what would happen in a physical congregation of experts. There, a newbie would sit and the back, and whisper their question to a neighbor at a suitable moment. And only gradually, after being deferred several time, would the question be presented on stage to the whole gathering (after several rounds of refinements and improvements), unless already answered.

SO does not distinguish between the kind and quality of questions, the experience of the asker, and does not provide great filters to make questions gradually progress in the audience the way described above for the physical world. Instead it relies on the community to deal with the question immediately after asked, such as quickly closing a "bad" question before it annoys too many people. That's a bit like ushering people quickly off the stage.

This kind of message distribution (all messages go to all subscribers immediately) does not scale well with the number of publishers and subscribers. Social conflicts emerge from this pattern of message distribution.

If messages were not immediately presented to the whole community, there would be less need to quickly and urgently "extinguish" bad (e.g. duplicate, unclear, off-topic) questions, and common behaviors for first answerers / commentators might be more patient and interactive and less abrupt.

  • 1
    Yes, there ought to be some kind of non-public phase (time for improvement, without downvotes and without close votes, with one or more iterations until some criteria are met) instead of immediately blasting it onto the public Internet for public shaming. It could optionally be sped up by sacrificing some amount of reputation points. Commented Jun 14, 2020 at 18:20
  • 1
    In fact, it could invert the negative "close" to "opened with flying colours". There would be no downvotes for those questions that are not accepted anyway (they never go public). Commented Jun 14, 2020 at 18:20
  • I really like the suggestions from @tkruse and @P.Mort! Thanks for being constructive instead of giving a rant on why the newbies are WRONG and SO definitely isn't toxic. Commented Nov 24, 2020 at 0:47
  • Heh. Reading this post and comments years after the fact, it seems to almost exactly describe the Staging Ground being tested on SO. :)
    – V2Blast
    Commented Jul 14, 2023 at 15:41

Boy, this gets really nasty to take this on without well thought out metrics and goals, and I'm frankly surprised that an organization with such a high engineering component would run down this path. If the goal is "reduce the number of all of these complaints", frankly, that's plain silly. A real process requires a much better framework for decisions than this.

I'm not saying this is easy, but it should be done, unless we enjoy spinning our wheels. For example, what if there was a follow-up question along the lines of "do any of these issues reduce your level of participation?" and then there was a goal to reduce THAT number, this would make more sense to me. Even, "what are you trying to get out of SE?", followed by "Are you getting that?" would be a better approach.

There will ALWAYS be problems, and there will always be interactions between the problems, prioritizations to be made, and choices.

For example, let me toss up the idea that we could really have high quality artifact at the expense of even more rigid moderation (whether we can achieve that with the community moderation model is a different issue!), and that it might be hard to have both of those numbers go down at the same time. Well, which is more important? My vote would be in favor of the artifact, as people come here looking for the artifact, and if that isn't good, people will stop coming. Then again, nobody has told me what we're trying to achieve with this process, so my real answer, if there's a choice to be made on how to prioritize overmoderation vs artifact concerns, would have to be "I don't have enough information to make this choice".

In fact, this brings up the point that the VAST majority of the SE usership probably NEVER asks a question or posts an answer. They type a question into their search engine, which points them to a correct answer on SE, all without even creating an account. BANG -- SATISFIED CUSTOMER!!! I suggest that The Loop does not consider the needs of this user base at all. This means that the participants you're trying to make happy aren't the customers -- they're the product for the real user base. It is important, though, to keep these people participating.

How many need to participate, though? Well, enough to ask sufficient questions to keep people interested, and enough to generate good answers to these questions. We need enough QA to cover the space. Do we need more than that? If the sites generate space-covering questions, and good answers to all of them, probably not. So, I suggest that the metrics should be related to question number/quality and answer quality. If a determination that those numbers aren't good enough, THEN you have a reason to ask what's keeping participants away. If you're long on answers, and short on questions, we probably need to be nicer to newcomers. If all the questions are silly, and the answers to the good questions are all great and numerous, then the newcomer thing might not be so important.

Maybe these real discussions are happening behind the scenes, but frankly, I find it very frustrating being in on half of a conversation.

Personally, I don't think many of the items I see on the list of evils are particularly surprising (except the design issue -- that's a new one to me). A thorough wade through the metas of each site and this one would have given exactly the same answers.

Even if the hidden agenda is to better monetize to promote a sale or IPO, if I were on the board, I would like somebody to explain how this process is going to get us there. Otherwise, this has an Underpants Gnome feel:

Enter image description here

  • What part of the methodology described in the blog post, specifically, makes you think SE doesn't have "well thought out metrics and goals"? In addition "I suggest that The Loop does not consider the needs of this user base at all." - blog post in fact states the survey collected data from anonymous, not-logged-in users.
    – Em C
    Commented Jan 23, 2020 at 22:33
  • @EmC I've read both Loop posts, numerous times. They describe a clear methodologh, but no goal. Further, the userbase I describe would never see the blog, and never repond to that survey. I suppose they can be reached by a "would you be wiiling..." popup when they land on the site, but not by current methods Commented Jan 24, 2020 at 0:31
  • ... is that not exactly what the blog post described: a survey that was randomly shown to both logged in and anonymous users? That's where I'm lost.
    – Em C
    Commented Jan 24, 2020 at 0:55
  • 1
    @EmC so far as I remember, the only way to take the survey was the link from the blog post. So, randomly shown to people likely to see the blog Commented Jan 24, 2020 at 1:14
  • 1
    If you're thinking of the survey entitled "Through the Loop" that was posted in November 2019 (blog post) - that's not the survey that this blog post is about; the graph in the question here is describing results from a different survey run this past summer. (Confusingly enough they seem to be using the same name for the surveys and their blog series, or something like that..)
    – Em C
    Commented Jan 24, 2020 at 2:13

You are interpolating on a verbatim quote from actual user feedback.

In doing so, you're making yourself very vulnerable to a slippery slope argument and/or missing the forest for the trees.

The feedback suggests that the community is toxic. The blog post does not insinuate that the community is toxic.

There are a lot of people who believe that the community is toxic for Reasons A, B and C (close votes, downvotes and snarky comments perhaps), but this is where having more narrow focus on what the actual feedback is trying to hint at and how it's being acted on would be more valuable than a broad "this place is toxic"-style response.

So, I wouldn't read too deep into this. Not yet, anyway. I feel like reaction is already begging the question of toxicity.


I'm a little hesitant to offer another answer, because my answer is not as germane as some of the answers already here. But it is yet another perspective. Much of what is perceived as toxicity is really due to the following:

There is a disconnect between the newcomer and the mentor who offers coaching on the question.

Mentors can be people who offer advice on rephrasing a question so as to improve its quality, or who flag a question as a duplicate, or who downvote a question and comment on the reason. Just about anything other than offer an answer.

Most mentors intend to do good. Sometimes it's more about what's good for the community than about what's good for the newcomer, but often it's both. But it's very easy for the most helpful of mentoring to be perceived as elitism, rudeness, or condescension.

Newcomers typically do not perceive of themselves as joining a community. They think they are just asking a question, and they think they know everything they need to know about Q&A itself. They don't, but they don't know what they don't know.

Newcomers often think of themselves as valued professionals who should be welcomed as colleagues, and are completely unprepared for what I'm referring to as mentoring. They think of it as an obstacle to getting a good answer, not as a way to move towards getting a good answer. And they think of the answer as being good or bad solely in terms of whether it helps them individually, not as something that might be valuable to future visitors.

The problem for the seasoned regular is how to bridge that gap without being too welcoming of questions that will lower the standard set over more than ten years.

Let me add just one little tidbit that I've found helpful.

There are several ways to indicate that a question has been asked before. One is to mark it as a duplicate, indicate which question it duplicates, and start the closing process. Another way is one I like a lot more. It's a link with the following label:

This question may have an answer here

Notice the difference. The first response suggests that asking the question was a faux pas. If the asker had done a better job, the question would never have been asked. Therefore the asker should feel slightly guilty about having violated our norms.

The second form is silent about the question itself. Instead, it suggests that, by following the link, the asker may get what he or she wants. A useful answer. The fact that the useful answer have have already been there before the question was asked is implicit, but not explicit.

The next suggestion I have involves a major effort, one that may be beyond our expertise.

Find a way to make it easier to search for similar questions.

This sound like a problem already solved, but it isn't. I'm going to make an analogy. There is a database of millions of fingerprints, and someone might inquire about finding prints that are somewhat like a sample print that relates to a current case. The problem is that "somewhat like" is actually multidimensional. One of the major advances that the FBI made was to come up with a way of forming a catalogue of fingerprints what would put similar prints close to each other in the catalogue.

If you took the millions of questions we have on file, and had a way of measuring the "distance" between each of those questions and a question that is proposed to be asked, we could point the new user at a list of similar questions.

The problem is compounded by the fact that people who don't know the answer to a question also don't know how to categorize the question. Tags are a start, but I think we need to go way beyond that.

This is way beyond my expertise. But maybe it isn't way beyond yours.

  • 2
    I value your answer, but I am a bit torn on the idea that newcomers consider themselves professionals. I've seen more than enough questions on security from folks who are clearly not professionals (which is not a bad thing per se), and who act rather rudely to being told that their question is off-topic, lacking details or fundamentally unanswerable (e.g. "What is this device with this IP?").
    – MechMK1
    Commented Jun 14, 2020 at 17:55
  • Yes, there are plenty of questions that must have been asked by non professionals. There are also questions asked by professionals who are asking about an area outside their expertise. There are even plenty of professionals who don't know that an IP is not an attribute of a device. Commented Jun 14, 2020 at 18:19
  • 2
    If an information security professional would have such a glaring gap of knowledge, I'd consider this...troublesome. However, I do understand what you're trying to get at. I guess in the end, it all boils down to the fact that most "veterans" care about SE as a platform, whereas most newcomers care about getting their one question answered, regardless of how much value it provides for others. There is an inherent gap in what people want, and this will inevitably result in friction.
    – MechMK1
    Commented Jun 14, 2020 at 19:01
  • Information security... I agree. I was thinking IT overall, there are plentty of fields where you never deal with IP adresses. Commented Jun 14, 2020 at 19:12
  • Yes, absolutely. I don't blame anyone for not sharing my area of expertise.
    – MechMK1
    Commented Jun 15, 2020 at 9:16

A lot of it is simply in the eye of Stack Overflow Inc. They want to see rudeness as a problem and they will make sure that they see it in the statistics to push their agenda. I won't deny that there are some toxic elements, as evaluated by the other answers, but the number of people mentioning the supposed toxicity in that survey is, in my opinion, significantly less than 10.6%.

Several actions made by SE lately have indicated that they plan to push major social issues on their platform. While I'm sure that there are a number of comments and posts written which are hurtful towards LGBT+ communities and I strongly believe that we shouldn't tolerate these at all, I refuse to believe they're anything near as common as what SE has been saying/behaving, since I've never noticed any before (although as a heterosexual male I would probably be less discerning). In order to motivate changes in rules and policies, it's likely that they're going to poke around the survey results a little bit just to make the issues they're addressing seem way bigger than they actually are; this will let SE pat themselves on their back once they push the numbers around a little to show a significant increase in satisfaction.

It's the same story with new users: SE wants to put the blame on veteran users when the new users are discouraged by the poor responses to their posts because they want to boost the number of new users flowing in and generating ad revenue, so they will pin it on an "unwelcoming community" which is supposedly spoken of by a tenth of the respondents.

  • 4
    The respondents are more likely to be biased toward veteran users than toward new users. Denying the problem doesn't make it go away.
    – gerrit
    Commented Jan 24, 2020 at 9:18

The word "toxic"

I cannot possibly answer the question sincerely without first challenging the frame introduced by talking about "toxicity". My extensive experience in Internet debate has led me to the conclusion that the term "toxic" offers no benefit to the discussion. At best, it describes nothing concrete or objective. At worst, it is a boo-word used by (and a watchword for) entryists who seek to shame a community into relaxing its rules or altering its culture, even at the expense of its core values, principles and goals.

However, I'm happy to talk about what new users do or don't seem to find "welcoming" - based mainly on my reading of off-site criticism, and partly on some rather... difficult Meta site interactions.

The word "welcoming"

While I don't find anything inherently objectionable in the concept of a community being "welcoming", I question the implicit assumption that a community should have any moral obligation to be welcoming, simply because - what? Because it's public facing? Because membership is open?

Stack Exchange sites are not merely "not social media"; they are explicitly goal-oriented. Every site's tour gets to copy-paste a template that claims: "With your help, we're working together to build a library of detailed answers...". That's a goal. Every site solicits help from the general public to meet that goal. Asking a question is helping with construction.

Construction requires at least a modicum of forethought. Questions are the material of the site, and in order to end up with a sound, useful library, it is necessary to carefully scrutinize every new question that is proposed for addition (i.e. to check them for clarity, topicality and focus), and for everyone to be willing to abide by an existing system of curation (i.e., to be willing to accept edits and duplicate closures).

A lot of veterans like to turn the question around and talk about the ill treatment they've received in response to their attempts at ordinary curation tasks. I don't think that's very productive or insightful, and I generally shrug off such ill treatment nowadays anyway. But my point is: the problem isn't being "unwelcoming", except insofar as one chooses to treat "being welcoming" as a KPI.

The problem, rather, is a gap in expectation between people who are confronted with an "ask question" form, their enablers (who have not gotten the message about the site's goals, but try to answer questions anyway - often inappropriately) and people who are trying to use the site as intended.


So, one might wonder: what is the cause of this expectation gap?

My take: a big shiny button labelled "Ask Question", along with a text input form, affords treating Stack Exchange sites like the discussion forums that they explicitly aren't supposed to be. New users are disappointed when the expectations set by that UI are not met. The competitive model for answers, similarly, incentivizes people to do what will be popular, which is not necessarily what is helpful. Meanwhile, the incentive for actual curation tasks is sorely lacking.

This results in sites where curation is done by a tiny minority of deeply intrinsically motivated people, while new content is contributed by hordes of people who have no interest in even finding out that the site has anything like a greater purpose. What's more, curators are handicapped. It is far too difficult to get redundant, altogether incorrect, or otherwise unsuitable answers removed. Meanwhile, the people asking questions insist on tailor-made answers, and resist all attempts to route those questions as duplicates to some higher-quality, polished, decontextualized version of the question, as well as attempts to edit their own question so it can be suitable for closing someone else's question as a duplicate.

On larger sites, this is compounded by the fact that different parts of the world, giving rise to different cultures, will have people awake and answering questions at different times of day - creating mirroring cultural enclaves within the site, with their own ideas about the purpose and utility of the site software. The Meta sites are simply not adequately powered to get these varying groups on the same page. (To be frank, I consider it nearly miraculous that Stack Overflow's English-only policy is upheld anywhere near as well as it is.)

Terse, clear and direct == polite, useful and civil

There is nothing unkind about being blunt. There is something unkind about using needlessly personal language or taking an accusatory or exasperated tone, like "why didn't you do X?!". But it is perfectly reasonable to say "Please read [relevant policy] and do X." More than that shouldn't be necessary.

People who criticize Stack Exchange as "unfriendly", in my experience, tend to claim three things about how language is used on the sites:

They almost never mention that there is a Code of Conduct, or that violating content should be flagged, or that such content is promptly removed whenever the extremely overworked volunteer moderators can manage it; usually they seem entirely unaware that any such system exists.

In my experience, on the other hand, they seem almost obsessed with the idea that the kind of people who sit around all day waiting for code to compile are somehow also deeply concerned with appearing "macho" (for which the evidence presented ranges from none to laughable).

What slips through the cracks of this discussion is the fact that the noise-editing policy is explicitly counter to any possible exclusionary culture, in the same way that the Code of Conduct and flagging system are. We edit "'Sup bro" out of questions, and we edit "bro" on the same grounds that we edit "'Sup".

As such, when editing and curation proceed according to policy, there is no opportunity for inequality to arise - except when people who falsely consider disparate impact as proof of inequality, derive disparate impact from being treated the same way as everyone else. Perhaps they'd be better off if they tried to assess the local culture fairly, appreciate why it is as it is, and understand how it works. You know, just like what they might exhort others to do.

  • I was surprised to see that word toxic being used here, but I don't hate it. "Unwelcoming" doesn't seem to really sum up the experience I think the OP is going for here. A sizeable chunk of users are being completely shut down by long-time users, often with a note directly implying that they are stupid -- something affecting their day and possibly their trajectory in math, not just their continued use of the site.
    – ness
    Commented May 18 at 11:04

Popularity- and Ahead-of-the-crowd bias

I am not sure if this can be overcome, and if so, how or if it is just an inherent quirk of any ecosystem - but Stack Overflow selects for people who work in popular frameworks, and especially those who did so before others.

That means that those who work in the long tail of technology - from where every single blockbuster technology necessarily originated - in a fashion that many would attest to as being purely by chance - are being sidelined.

Considering that, I find it remarkable how effective the simple scoring mechanism is, but I suspect that its effectiveness is because a high level of peer selection still takes place and it simply serves to regulate the influx of new members.

Perhaps if not the number of upvotes, but simply the number of questions or answers with interactions, were counted, for access to certain functions - would that be a more egalitarian selection mechanism able to defeat these biases?

Not enough helpful "meta" comments

I think the reason people don't follow the rules is because many of them are literally internet newcomers who do not yet know that there are things like FAQ's or house rules and even if they are aware do not yet value them.

The way to bring this about, in my opinion, would be to make sure that reviewers know where to find these and rather than just being curt or just answering the question - in a kind way refer people to helpful meta information with links, and by spelling out what and how, to help them to follow a better thinking process when engaging with Stack Overflow.

Maybe some random multiple-choice quiz questions can gate access to moderation privileges, but in a not-too-obvious way. If you knew that you could become a moderator, you might be too incentivised to game the system. I think Stack Overflow does a great job of allowing people to "grow into" the community - and it does this by keeping newcomers unaware of all that awaits. (Maybe when signing up if you noted that you were referred by a friend, this could be taken into account.)

Too many answers in comments / reviewers just answering in comments

I think this is also brought about by the review system - as reviewers are the first to see many questions, and are not encouraged to answer them by the user interface, they tend to just answer the question in a comment. Again something that could perhaps be improved by better selection of reviewers, or better orientation or testing, or vetting.

Perception of numbers, and Up / Downvotes

Instagram - and Facebook - did experiments where they hid the number of likes, and subscribers / friends - and surveyed the emotional effect on users. Perhaps Stack Overflow can experiment with something similar - I know this might seem like somewhat of a radical proposal - but imagine if - instead of + and - votes, there were simply "plus green" or "plus grey" votes - or some other color - or "Plus helpful" vs "plus confusing" - it might come across as less scalding.

Group Think

Confirmation bias affects even the smartest of the smart. I believe that there's a good reason that Reddit hides the vote counts for new posts, for example, and I can imagine that seeing a downvote immediately triggers an emotional reaction in anyone. The reaction it triggers in me is to want to upvote it, it's rare that I can't find a reason to - yet I don't understand - or perhaps don't particularly care about the inner workings of the reputation system - although I can't escape the feeling that I'm somehow tainting myself by upvoting hugely unpopular or downvoted questions or answers.


Wow, this question has been up here for almost a year. I just stumbled upon it now. Is there a way to distinguish between "evergreen" topics, and "timely" ones? Is there a place for questions with expiry dates? Perhaps the idea of time can be given more thought... I do know that I am personally not frustrated by "necroposting" - ever - and that I am frustrated by stale information that can not be refreshed or updated trivially. I am frustrated by rehashes of the same old things with just "2020" thrown in there to make it seem "fresh". But I do think that a visual cue, such as popularity graph of a certain topic, can possibly go a long way to inform a reader at what point in the conversation he or she walked in, which would allow them to socially align themselves appropriately. I wear my "Excavator" badge with pride.

Ban explanations or perhaps stats or context

A blunt message that you've been temporarily banned, with no further explanation, while perhaps not particularly scathing to a newcomer, can be very harsh on someone to whom this has become a sanctuary. An explanation or some more detail or context, or an easier outlet or discussion around that, can go a long way toward creating a more friendly and welcoming environment.

Suggested activities

When you've been banned, or had your question deleted, especially if it was something you put a lot of time and thought into, you might end up feeling lost. A visual suggestion for where you can find a discussion that can help you understand why, presented thoughtfully in such an instance, might help draw you into a part of the community where you may well be able to turn your energy into something constructive. Perhaps even a suggestion box in such instances, would help.


I'm surprised it's not on the list... I guess it falls under "design" though. It can be daunting to master for someone who has only used a computer for a year or two - especially if they're used to only GUI's and WYSIWYG editors - but this might be a blessing in disguise - and an easy learning / teaching opportunity - where some additional wisdom can be imbued.

Unpopular opinions are seldom welcomed

Need I say more? If you ask a stupid question, you're guaranteed tens or hundreds of downvotes. Is that the best way to deal with this? In school - and indeed in life, we're taught that there are no stupid questions. How did we turn this around here - and could it hold a key to improving the community here?

Feelings... Counselling?

It's all about feelings really. Ratings are displayed, and people are drawn to it. Getting a ban for doing something that you've been taught all your life is good, feels like a punch to the stomach. Perhaps more explanation and better counseling to those who are disciplined by the system? Wait, that was perhaps a telling slip - as I perceive this to be a system rather than a community.

Imagine how hard it must be for someone who is adamant about something that they are right about, but the community is wrong about, to use SO? But if they're banned, what recourse do they have? Counselling to soften the blow would go a long way toward building community - and even that could be crowd sourced, and people herded towards it. Is anything out of scope here? I would give up on a lot of things, before I had to give up on what makes us human - and bringing some of that humanity to the online world.

Social Context

Nevermind local context: for example, despite using Stack Overflow for more than a decade, I have never seen its blog. Why? People randomly stumble across different sections here, and gaining context around what's going on can take time. Can someone who just walked in on a long conversation, offer valuable insight? Sure. Context can blind us, but it can also be a barrier. This is grossly amplified in peoples' individual social contexts. Some months I can barely put food on the table, why am I here in the first place - am I even welcome here, because of my social context? Should I even be here. The irony is, that, people who are unemployed often have more time too.

Every day literally millions of people connect to the internet for the first time. Many people come from vastly different circumstances, and have yet no concept of the social norm of others. This shows - and the best way to teach is to lead by example. The internet seems to amplify our instant gratification urges and many of us turn to the internet purely out of desperation or necessity, and it's expensive and our circumstances dire - and this might come across as ungrateful or rude - when in fact many peoples' circumstances are much worse - seeing as that Stack Overflow ranks highly on search results, and attracts a large sampling of the internet community, improving even more on the already great housekeeping here can go a lot further to creating a welcoming community - and it can potentially improve disproportionately more with a simple measure such as just reminding those who can review and access meta chats, how different the circumstances of others can be and to encourage them to be patient and thoughtful. Or perhaps just selecting reviewers who are older and more experienced, or more world-wise.

  • 1
    I have often wondered if more obvious filtering on the front page to allow a greater proportion of whats on there to be content the user is directly interested in would help the perception of the quantity of junk, thus increasing willingness to engage with specific marginal posts to help turn them into useful content. Commented Sep 24, 2020 at 11:18
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    There is also the issue that those who are willing to spend the time to help with those who are struggling with basic concepts are generally not the same as those who can answer complicated or unusual issues. Focusing on the first time users has a risk of damaging the workflow for the complicated cases, whilst focusing on the complicated cases results in situations that are opaque to those that are simple. This conflict that can't be resolved by the community alone. Commented Sep 24, 2020 at 11:22
  • @user1937198 I've added two more impressions on unpopular opinions, and feelings. I can't imagine how overwhelmed you've been with all the feedback, but I'm looking forward to seeing what you come up with... by far the hardest problem to tackle here, that I can think of! Kudos.
    – Dagelf
    Commented Sep 24, 2020 at 11:48
  • 1
    Yep, and really it goes back to what stackoverflow was designed for, the production of quality answers. I suspect that expansion of comment functionality could really help here, perhaps classifying comments into clarifying/improvement comments which an OP/editor could mark as resolved, deleting them. Also some form of explicit pre-answer comments where someone isn't sure they have an answer, so they don't put an answer, but put some ideas/concepts/references that could be used by someone wanting to edit into an answer, again deleting the comment in. Commented Sep 24, 2020 at 12:17
  • 1
    Combine that with improvements to the help system, (a lot of which is currently documented in random meta posts), perhaps with a crowd sourced wiki, and you could have some significant improvements. Commented Sep 24, 2020 at 12:18
  • I've been dreaming of such a comment system for years. Badges and emoticons became popular, but they're still pretty meaningless IMHO. kialo.com is just about the only real experiment I've yet come across. I'm keen to help build and trial better commenting, but I'm not going to do it all by myself :-D
    – Dagelf
    Commented Sep 24, 2020 at 12:22
  • 2
    And badges and emoticons go the wrong way, they add to the noise, whereas I'm looking for ways that comments could be more easily removed when they outlive there usefulness, so that we can encorage them more without increasing noise. Commented Sep 24, 2020 at 12:37

meta.math.stackexchange.com is sometimes reasonable, but far too often toxic.

Bullying by cliques on meta

The "meta" sites are designed in a way that enables bullying and boorishness. There is a clique of users with no official positions who have decided that some topics are forbidden, and they close all comments on those topics on bogus pretexts, and are extraordinary harsh and angry for no apparent reason in the way they address anyone who does not bow down to them in a servile fashion.

When this is reported to the moderators, the moderators make no comment and just ignore it. When it was reported dozens of times over several years they made no comment and they ignored the reports.

I don't think this will get fixed until two things happen: (1) No voting on postings to "meta" can be done, and (2) postings to "meta" will not be closed without discussion, and such discussion will be an actual discussion rather than phrased like instructions to a plantation slave.

Frequent drive-by disrespect involving insinuations that can be easily and almost instantly seen to be false

Besides bullying by cliques, another sort of commonplace rude behavior on "meta" sites is this: If you say something is wrong with anything about the way things are conventionally done here, someone instantly responds by saying maybe you're a newbie who doesn't know this or that (specified—in every instance there is specificity) or who made this or that particular mistake (always specified) and they ignore the fact that the poster has a reputation above 200 000 (two-hundred-thousand) and the fact that the person has not committed any of the specified mistakes and is not ignorant of the specified things.

Then typically within one minute, the contemptuous comment has a dozen or more upvotes.

Abuse built in to the software, now fixed

On math.stackexchange.com one extraordinarily boorish thing was built in to the software and has recently been fixed many years after I proposed the particular software fix.

That is simply that a posting could not be closed for insufficient context without an official notice to the poster saying the posting is not about mathematics, when obviously it is. This bug was finally fixed after many years.

Another form of disrespect built in to the software

Another instance of disrespect built in to the software is in the close queue, where people vote on whether to close questions. Users are not allowed to look over the questions whose closing is proposed and judiciously choose which ones they are able to contribute to.

Rather they are told: Here's the next question you are to look at. You don't get to see other questions whose closing is proposed until you've either voted and comment on this one or clicked on "skip", and if you click on "skip", you will not be allowed to choose which question to work on next, but instead you will be told.

Only people willing to submit to this treatment can habitually work on the close queue, and I wonder if that is why those who habitually work on the close queue feel entitled, as in fact they do, to be disrespectful to others.

Actual on-topic postings are nonetheless usually polite

Material that's actually on the topic to which the site is devoted—the questions and answers—is almost always polite and respectful and businesslike and sometimes friendly.

  • 5
    Related to what you describe here: Has or does SE suffer from shills or cabals of special interest groups looking to peddle influence or control narrative?
    – user172557
    Commented Jun 14, 2020 at 23:49
  • 2
    Let us continue this discussion in chat. Commented Jun 16, 2020 at 18:29
  • There's no such thing as "bullying by cliques"
    – David
    Commented Apr 21, 2023 at 9:09
  • 1
    "Frequent drive-by disrespect involving insinuations that can be easily and almost instantly seen to be false" - yes, I see plenty of that within this answer. Commented Nov 26, 2023 at 8:17
  • 1
    "Another instance of disrespect built in to the software is in the close queue, where people vote on whether to close questions. Users are not allowed to look over the questions whose closing is proposed and judiciously choose which ones they are able to contribute to." - This argument is simply absurd. Use of the queue is completely voluntary, and nothing prevents opening the question for normal viewing in another tab. Aside from that, the queue interface shows the entire question. Commented Nov 26, 2023 at 8:19

Definition of toxic

What exactly about the community is so toxic and unwelcoming?

The answer to your question is very simple; the combination of:

  1. Human nature
  2. The mechanisms of SO that cause certain human behaviors to emerge.

No, we could debate if SO is indeed toxic, or try to redefine words, but the reality is that "toxicity" is the top concern in a poll from users, so the people here can bargain all they want, but that will not change how people feel who hold that opinion, and it won't address why so many view SO as toxic.

And, I am more interested in finding a solution. Consider that one thing SO generally nailed is the ability for the best answers to bubble up to the top. How did they do it? Voting, and subsequent contribution to user reputation. In that vein, SO could lean in to that which they have proven expertise in and use it to address the toxicity problem.

If Stack Overflow wants to fix the toxicity problem they should consider adding a second rating for an user; How congenial vs. confrontational are they? This should be on fixed scale like 0..100 rather than an cumulative scale like reputation ranking. And all behaviour on the site should be rankable for this rating.

If SO did this, I assert it would quickly and eventually almost completely solve the toxicity problem as people who consistently come across as jerks would start getting low behavior ranking thus indicating they are jerks. People who are only occasional jerks would be fine because their upvotes for behavior would counter.

And people who really work on being congenial would be rewarded with a high behaviour ranking, which would also be a great signal for potential employers that such a person is likely to be a great team member.

So the question should be (IMO): Do the users of SO and SE itself actually want to solve the toxicity problem, or just continue to deny that such problem exists?

  • 8
    3. People shoot the messenger.
    – philipxy
    Commented Nov 24, 2023 at 3:29
  • 9
    It is objectively incorrect to expect people not to be confrontational, because there are huge numbers of people who come in and do things that are objectively wrong per site policy. Newcomers to an existing community do not get to dictate social norms. I cannot "deny that the problem exists", because it doesn't - just as I cannot "deny" that the sky is yellow at midday. Describing people as "jerks" because they are blunt or matter-of-fact is at best not helpful, at worst insensitive to neurodiversity. Commented Nov 24, 2023 at 9:20
  • 1
    @KarlKnechtel — The problem exists because it is the top mentioned concern in the poll. And saying people "cannot dictate social norms" is excellent evidence the problem does in fact exist. You are of course free to have any opinions you want, but your opinions do not make you correct, only objective data does. End of the day, SE is a business and having a reputation for toxicity harms their business. BTW, I did not call anyone a jerk, I said if people acted like jerks they would get downvoted. Your taking issue with that comes across as your self-identifying as such. 🤷‍♂️ Commented Nov 24, 2023 at 10:02
  • 2
    "The problem exists because it is the top mentioned concern in the poll." If I say there's an eggplant in my refrigerator, that does not cause it to materialize. "And saying people "cannot dictate social norms" is excellent evidence the problem does in fact exist." No, it isn't, because it isn't a problem to say such a thing, because it is a correct and true thing to say, and people who object to it are in the wrong for objecting to it. With this answer, you are proposing to impose social norms upon other people who reject them, and who are well within their rights to do so. Commented Nov 24, 2023 at 10:08
  • 4
    "End of the day, SE is a business" - yes; and this is to the detriment of a large, existing community, which has a clear, long-standing, noble purpose, which the company's actions directly interfere with. The short version is that each Stack Exchange site is not a discussion forum, and is explicitly designed not to be. Hordes of newcomers are coming in with the expectation of a discussion forum and an apparent sense of entitlement to a discussion forum. Not every site must be a discussion forum simply because it supports user-generated content. See, for example, Wikipedia. Commented Nov 24, 2023 at 10:08
  • 1
    "I did not call anyone a jerk, I said if people acted like jerks they would get downvoted." - you proposed that certain behaviours would be justification for describing others as "jerks", and you were wrong to do so. That said, under your proposed scheme, the "jerks" would not "get downvoted", because users do not get downvoted on Stack Exchange sites - questions and answers do. Commented Nov 24, 2023 at 10:12
  • 4
    Staging Ground was an attempt to address some of it (e.g., separating the initial version, refinement/iteration, comments, search for duplicates, publication, voting (up, down, close, and delete), and incoming answers in time (not happening all at (almost) the same time)), but ironically it was put on hold indefinitely due to the AI craze. Commented Nov 24, 2023 at 15:22
  • 1
    From another comment: "Downvoting without explaining is toxic" and "Commenting where you can't be downvoted is toxic". Commented Nov 24, 2023 at 16:06
  • 2
    Introducing a social score is not a solution to toxicity. Oof!
    – Cerbrus
    Commented Mar 11 at 8:06

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