After seeing the downvotes survey and, honestly, being very surprised that downvotes are targeted again, I took the initiative to sign up as a completely new user on SO, to understand, in my own way, why people complain that the attitude they perceive is unwelcoming/toxic.

I've spotted two obvious dissonances stemming from the very first moment a user decides to take a step into SO: the sign-up page.

Value proposition mismatch

On first sign up, you are met with this:

The value proposition as described on the sign-up page: get unstuck - ask a question

For comparison, this is the value proposition you signed up for at the earliest time the Archive was up:

The original value prop: Learn, share their knowledge, and build their careers

This is a radically different message provided on the very first point of call with a user. For a start, there is a completely different perspective on the relationship built with them:

  • On the old site, you are implicitly shown a relationship with peers. You're one of the many developers coming to learn, share your knowledge, and build your career. You're equal to the others.
  • On the new site, you are implicitly shown a giver-taker relationship: you ask, somebody else answers and you get unstuck

Not just that, but the entire message resonates further there: there is no indication that this was originally a canonical repository of answers, there is no mention of the purpose of the site, you are literally shown one thing: you can get unstuck.

Reputation at the core

These are the remaining items on the new site:

The remaining points on the new page: earn privileges, save tags, earn rep

At no point does this put knowledge at the core of the value proposition. At no point are users shown that the purpose is knowledge, not reputation points; that the intent is sharing, not getting privileges; and that they are among peers, not rivals.

Coupled with point 1, it is very simple to see why a new user would get extremely annoyed. They're there to get unstuck, as the brief before sign-up states clearly as the very first item. They post their question they're stuck on (which, frequently, is an already-asked question), and get downvoted/closed.

However, since the other element of the value proposition is the rep that they've just lost (or felt they lost!), they attribute the issue to downvotes/closures, where the real culprit is that, from the first page, they are given a misrepresentation - that this is a "get unstuck easily" website, not a canonical repository of knowledge as it used to be.

How to fix this

The value proposition mismatch is between what people sign up for, and what the tools are built for.

If the purpose of this is to "get unstuck" (as the sign-up page states), then close votes, dupehammers and a whole bunch of other tools are redundant and/or nonsensical, and likely should be scrapped altogether.

If, on the other hand, the value proposition is learning/sharing and not "getting unstuck", then the sign-up page needs a rework.

The hard decision is on which path to go, as most of us likely know the old value proposition. I, for sure, would not have joined to get people unstuck, but that's just me. Others may differ.

At the end of the day, though, the "toxic community" perception of new users very likely stems from this dissonance, not downvotes themselves, and it'll likely be worth fixing that dissonance first.

(This came through a bit of discussion with Yaakov, Nick, and the other Discord regulars)

  • 3
    That's surely a part but you cannot really be sure that it's just that. I can say from my own experience from many years ago when I started here, when Jeff Atwood was still onboard and the goal was to build a library, and the first "feedback" I received was a downvote, it just hurt. In a way it still does. But I've grown and, more importantly, I cannot think of anything better. If we would abolish downvotes, we would destroy the value of the knowledge over time. I think we need way more than that although it would surely be helpful to better manage expectations. Oct 15, 2020 at 21:29
  • 16
    @Trilarion Oh, totally agree, but this just sets people completely on the wrong foot. Imagine if you were told by Jeff that you were there to get unstuck, and then somebody closes your attempt to get unstuck. What would you do? Somebody declined you the very thing the website promised. Oct 15, 2020 at 21:32
  • Getting help was always part of the equation, it's just that searching for a solution first and in case the problem is new presenting it in an answerable form, is a necessary prerequisite. So maybe they should change their pick up line to something that reflects this better. "Prove yourself worthy and you will be given beyond measure" or so?? Oct 15, 2020 at 21:42
  • 8
    @Trilarion They do not necessarily need to change it - or rather, it's the onboarding/value prop, or the tools, that need a change. Something like "Find the answer to your problems" would already be better than "getting unstuck", as it does harken back to the whole canonical answers idea SO was initially at first, with an emphasis on knowledge rather than getting unstuck. Oct 15, 2020 at 21:50
  • 2
    It has been said: Meta is murder, but the suffering comes here via SOmewhere else. Suggestions (mandatory incentives) to read the help first are deemed unfriendly, it's only after the newcomer has dove into the deep and proven themselves not a swimmer that we should: offer a helpful comment, vote, or close. -- The person gets instant something; and beauty is in the eye of the beholder, be it a stick or an unstuck.
    – Rob
    Oct 16, 2020 at 3:42
  • 2
    Unstuck implies a lot of research prior to posting, but probably very few users get such subtlety. They need to be told in a very upfront way. (To be fair, it isn't easy to find something in 20,294,943 existing questions.) Oct 16, 2020 at 13:55
  • 2
    @P.Mort.-forgotClayShirky_q Completely agree with you - it can be kept, but needs to be clarified. That is also a good way to solve the dissonance and the unmet expectations! Oct 16, 2020 at 14:04


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