See Jeff Atwood's blog post: The Great Edit Wars.

As well as the usual close wars we're all familiar with I'm aware that there have been several edit / rollback and tag wars recently, some have been over whether or not "Google it yourself" answers were acceptable, others over issues of formatting, and a great many over what tags should be called.

After being involved in an edit war recently I read the following passage in Clay Shirky's book Here Comes Everybody:

Wikipedia also arms its users with ways to help enforce the bargains that make the site work. Wikipedia lists a number of rules for the site, including writing from a neutral point of view and assuming good faith during disagreements. No direct enforcement mechanism is attached to these rules, but users periodically invoke them when they are arguing about the content of an article. This invocation has no formal effect, but it arms the user with a kind of moral suasion that is often enough to settle an argument.

I think if we had rules for how to manage disagreements on Stack Overflow it might help to resolve them and could at least better define what is expected of participants in terms of justification of edits and behaviour which may make them more civil.

The closest we have to Wikipedia's rules are the following from the site FAQ written by Jeff Atwood:

Be nice.

Treat others with the same respect you'd want them to treat you. We're all here to learn together. Be tolerant of others who may not know everything you know. Bring your sense of humor.

We do have these sofaq questions which deal with how and when to close, edit or retag:

The FAQ also has a lot to say about expected behaviour on the site, but neither the FAQ nor the above questions deal with how to resolve disputes. As far as I can recall there hasn't been any discussion followed by consensus of what to do when there is disagreement over edits or tagging.

I'm not just looking for answers prescribing conventions on specific issues of style, formatting or tagging but how to resolve any disagreement that may arise.

Issues to Address

  • Should we even be discussing this?
    • Is there a downside to locking this down too early?
  • Are there rules that have to be followed?
    • Are they absolute or just guidelines?
    • Who decides what they are?
    • Should everything Jeff Atwood says be taken as authoritative or can the SO community decide to deviate from the FAQ?
    • What constitutes community consensus?
  • How should both parties proceed once it is clear there is a difference of opinion?
    • Do we need a formal (technical) and/or informal (social) process for resolving disputes?
    • What examples of community consensus on matters of style or tagging could be invoked?
  • How should both parties behave towards one another?
    • What can people do to show good faith on both sides?
    • What if the other party isn't following expected behaviour?
  • Should any party have to defer to the other?
    • Does the OP have more rights?
    • Should the OP defer to community consensus?
    • Does it depend at all on the situation?

Each answer doesn't have to cover every issue, it may be helpful to tackle them separately so that consensus can be reached on each independently.

Now it may be that eventually more moderation features are added to the site to help resolve such disputes, but since both sides may have access to such features we may never be able to solve such disputes by purely technical means. As Clay Shirky says in his essay A Group Is Its Own Worst Enemy: "technical and social issues are deeply intertwined. There's no way to completely separate them."


10 Answers 10


Should we even ask this question?

The problem with this question, aside from it being subjective, argumentative, and requiring extended discussion (ie, all the things listed in the FAQ as "Questions you shouldn't ask") is:

How can we enforce any guidelines?

Who can watch the watchers?

This is a social problem with no technical answer.

Once two people come to loggerheads about a particular editing matter, as exemplified in a few recent questions and answers, then neither is prepared to cede their ground. Even in cases where the existing FAQ clearly sides with one or the other, they still continue.

If such rules or guidelines are community decided and approved, there's not much that's going to prevent this from happening again unless we also add powers to lock questions, or deduct rep, or add yet another layer of moderation on top of the existing tools and layers.

This is a social problem.

The site is not stable yet - premature optimization isn't good.

Keep in mind also that this site is only 6 months old. It's not finished - not by a long shot - even though it has most of the major intended features. Decisions we make now may stunt us in the future, even if this is considered a living, breathing document.

Jeff and Joel have always been fairly hands off. Rather than spelling things out to a T in the FAQ and stepping in every single little dispute they're giving us space to see what happens, only occasionally adjusting things before they get too out of control.

While it's nice to have boundaries, I think they are right, and it's still good to keep things loose and adjustable.

The problem isn't a big problem.

The edit and close wars that have happened aren't consuming the site - they are happening on a very small percentage of questions, and in general few people actually see them, nevermind are involved.

They are of such a low incidence that I don't think we need to approach this question and lock them down yet, especially if it may result in a poor set of rules that don't fit what this site may be in 6 more months (twice it's lifetime from now).

The site is going to be very different in a year

It's very important to understand that right now there are

  • 68 10k+ mods (0.2% of the total users)
  • 564 3k+ mods (1.3%)
  • 1015 2k+ mods (2.3%)
  • 44,604 users (11,375 users with 100 or more rep)

In 6 months or a year the site dynamics will be substantially different as we should have 3-5 times that many people moderating. This is because the rep limits for actions are fixed, and the mods will continue to grow in number - it's not like grading on a curve, anyone can become a 3k mod in 15 days. The dynamics will be so different that we can't possibly imagine now what we'll need then to keep things in check.

Once the site features have largely stabilized (look at the "svn revision: 2562" in the lower right and note how many changes have been rolled out since this post), and once the active user count levels off to a gentle rise instead of exponential, then we will have a point where we can take stock and determine the right rules for the community.

"We should forget about small efficiencies, say about 97% of the time: premature optimization is the root of all evil."
- Donald Knuth

The edit wars are not affecting even one tenth of one percent of the user base or questions, nevermind the 3% trigger that Knuth suggests.

Note that the above numbers are cumulative, and as of Feb 25, 2009. There are 68 users with 10k+, 496 users above 3k and below 10k, and 451 users above 2k and below 3k.


Should we even be discussing this?

Short answer: Yes. We're a wiki, and based on our current size (35,000 users and growing), it's an issue we should hash out now rather than later. Do you want to have this discussion when 5000 users actively edit every day?

Are there rules that have to be followed?

  • Are they absolute or just guidelines?

There's a line from Pirates of the Caribbean that seems to fit here:

The code is more what you'd call "guidelines" than actual rules. -- Barbossa

Who decides what they are?

Well, we do. There should always be input from Moderators (like Jeff and Jarrod) but at the end of the day, 2 users cannot police an entire community of programmers. We do that ourselves.

What constitutes community consensus?

Community Consensus, much like everything else, is tyranny of the majority, so whatever the predominant attitude at Stack Overflow is is what's done. With some exceptions

Dispute Resolution

Disputes should be handled quickly by as many 'High Reputation' users as possible. The more people that are involved, the easier it is to reach consensus. While sticking one's head in the sand seems to work for the Ostrich, it doesn't work so well for programming communities. There are some users who say, "I never downvote" or "I never vote to close." These high reputation users are doing the community a disservice, and ought not to get involved with any activity, if not all of them.

Reputation confers privilege, which confers responsibility.

How to Handle a Dispute

  1. Any time a user makes an edit that may be questionable, they ought to explain their reason for editing (in either the comments or the "Edit Summary" field).
  2. If the Original Poster disagrees, then they should explain why in the same space provided.
  3. Other users weigh in on the edits; and consensus should be reached through logic and precedent, and not because of feelings toward that user.
  4. If the Original Poster or Editor refuse to desist or acquiese to community consensus, then a uservoice request or email ought to be submitted regarding that user.

Reasons that cannot be used to Dispute an Edit

  • It's "My" Post. This goes directly against the FAQ which states that questions are owned by the community, not the original poster.

    • What examples of community consensus on matters of style or tagging could be invoked? Consensus does not have to be verbal, it can come in these forms:
    • Prior tags. If you have 50 questions tagged Windows2K3, then retagging it to Windows2003 does not follow convention, even if you don't like that tag nomenclature.

How should both parties behave towards one another?**

What can people do to show good faith on both sides?

Editor and OP: Be Civil: Your problem is with the wording of the question, not the particular user. Original Poster: Don't take Personal Offense to Edits: As a writer, I've had plenty of my stuff torn apart by editors. I thought I was a great writer, but there's always room to improve. Edits are meant to improve the quality of writing on Stack Overflow, and it says nothing about you as a person. Editor: Refrain from namecalling.

What if the other party isn't following expected behaviour?

Ignore them. Users define their own reputation. When a user notices that his opinions carry less and less weight, and he's being overruled by more and more of the community with each edit, they'll either change their behavior, or leave. Either way, we're better off for it. If they are habitually harassing you (and this does not include reasonable and logical edits), then submit a complaint to the Stack Overflow team ([email protected]), or open a uservoice request.

Should any party have to defer to the other?

Does the OP have more rights?

Yes, but only when it comes to the 'intent' of the question. If the question asks about how to do Widget X, then it's unfair to reword it to ask how to do something else. It's not unfair, however, to edit the question so that the intent isn't lost.
There's an old saying to paraphrase: A question isn't complete when there's anything more to add, but when there's nothing more that can be taken away. For OPs, that means that you ought to expect superflous wording to be discard for brevity.

Should the OP defer to community consensus?

Everyone should. But that requires the community to be involved, at all levels.

Does it depend at all on the situation?

Most of the time, no. But if a poster just isn't happy with a community response to his question, he's free to nominate it for deletion, or put it out under Community Wiki.


Who watches the watchmen?


Should we even be discussing this?

Disputes of this nature effect the community and hurt it. When "wars" occur they cycle the question through the main page Active tab and this means:

  1. Other legitimate questions are pushed off the front page.
  2. Users that could be contributing answers are involved in these wars (i.e. their knowledge isn't going into the community.)
  3. Users are continually having to ignore the question (or visit the question to see what's up.)

Should everything Jeff Attwood says be taken as authoritative or can the SO community decide to deviate from the FAQ?

Only if he says that we can deviate.


Someone above mentioned "Tyranny of the majority", and I think that accurately describes the situation.

  • What about the minority opinions/questions?
  • Do they get selected against?
  • What technical mechanisms will be in place to manage giving them a hearing?
  • Should they be given a hearing?

In the interests of disclosure, I suppose I should disclose that I occasionally take minority views on SO.


Obviously, disputes should be settled through Claw-Plagh.

Some prefer a less entertaining approach: Building Communities with Software.


The "Be nice" aspect is the most enormously powerful and least used tool to get your point across.

Being nice doesn't mean you have to be all cheesy and mindful of the poster's feelings. All it means is that in your approach, you are not 'telling' them they are doing something that you don't agree with but rather just 'suggesting' that it's not int the best interest of the site to have the question/asnwer/comment written in the manner in which it was posted. Writing a bad post should never be considered 'offensive' to a reader, unless there are actually derogatory terms used in the post. So if you're going to close, comment, or down-vote any post, you need to take your emotions out of the situation and provide your feedback keeping in mind this is an extremely diverse forum and the best contribution that you can make to it in any form is one of a professional manner.

And yes, adding Humor to the 'suggestion' makes you seem like you are above all of the drama that occurs here and you can have fun using the site while adding your constructive criticism.


Trial by Combat, obviously.

The best way to limit damage moderators can do is to limit the moderators. One needs to set daily limits to how many times they can do certain things. Limits to voting, limits to editing, limits to rollback, whatever it is.

In this way the damage caused by one or two people is limited and can be fixed by others.

Further, by setting limits, it makes the task more valuable such that it will only be used when it is very important.

  • 1
    This doesn't prevent any abuse, it only hurts the community.
    Commented Feb 25, 2009 at 20:57
  • We already have limits, and it doesn't stop the wars. Perhaps by adjusting the limits we'll find a more optimal setting, but as the community changes that setting will necessarily change too...
    – Pollyanna
    Commented Feb 25, 2009 at 21:28
  • Most of the moderation limits don't do anything useful anyway. This site would have a lot less noise if they didn't exist.
    Commented Feb 25, 2009 at 21:46
  • The thing to realize about a community is that there is more than one person out there. So limits don't hurt because there are many others who can do the same job as you.
    – Steve Sheldon
    Commented Feb 26, 2009 at 16:15

Question: How should disputes be handled on Stack Overflow?

Answer: Not with a monstrous 81-answer comment block. =)

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