Lately I've been seeing a lot of questions on Meta from people who apparently don't want to think for themselves about how they should behave on Stack Overflow.

Ordinarily on a site that claims to be run by its users (tm) one would think that one could just do whatever one feels is right until someone else tells one that it's wrong. Instead these users rush to Meta to ask what the best way to behave should be. That's crazy. Just do what you think is right. Why are you so hung up what other people think is the correct way to behave? You have the privileges granted by your arbitrary number to do great things. Just do great things. Don't second-guess yourselves.

Somehow I think this is related to the nature of Stack Overflow. Neil Butterworth commented in this highly relevant question that SO is a magnet for people with OCD. I think it's a bit more sinister than that. I think the nature of SO as a place to ask questions makes people feel they should always defer to other people with respect to their questions.

Ergo, when people wonder something they rush to ask a question about how to use the software instead of remembering that the software is designed to be self-moderating: that they should behave as they see fit and not bother the rest of us with their weird little dilemmas about every tiny little thing.

Realistically I'm not sure if it's that SO encourages asking meta questions by force of habit or if it just attracts the kinds of people who defer, defer, defer. All I know is that I find it sad that there are so many people who are so quick to do it. Whatever happened to the freedom to govern oneself? Do these people not feel confident enough in themselves to make their own decisions?

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    I'm not sure if I should respond to this. What does everybody else think? – Aarobot Jul 29 '10 at 14:02
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    Why do you care? I don't mean that as a snide aside, but as a real question. What is your concern? They are already acting as they want...and they apparently want to make sure they fit in well with the existing community, and want independent validation for their decisions. I don't see what the worry is. – beska Jul 29 '10 at 14:02
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    @Weblog: but more seriously...is deference really that big of a deal? To defer to societal convention is to fit in...if they were deferring on issues of morality or ethics, that would be one thing, but if they're deferring to the (semi)-arbitrary, but sometimes unknown, rules of the society they are trying to integrate themselves into, well, that just seems wise. People that work to show that they are trying to get along are (generally) treated well, and in a reputation based system, that seems like it can only help. – beska Jul 29 '10 at 14:08
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    Only a small percentage of people will do what they think is right (in a community setting like SO) without any validation. Most people will probably want to seek approval from others on meta and feel more confident afterwards. – Miyagi Coder Jul 29 '10 at 14:16
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    @Miyagi: That seems weird. Why do people feel they need approval for doing what they think is right? Regulations exist to restrict, not enable. You should feel free to do what you think is right unless explicitly disallowed rather than feeling the need to ask for permission to do something before you do it. – Welbog Jul 29 '10 at 14:34
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    @beska: You appear to be mistaking SO as a social network. Questions and answers are what are important on SO, not weird little details about how you think different features ought to be interpreted. The integration into SO should end with understanding the feature set with the idea that you should strive to do what you think is right. – Welbog Jul 29 '10 at 14:38
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    @Welbog - there is a difference between social norms and regulations. Just because you can do something doesn't mean you should. When people ask questions about how to behave they are getting a sense for SO's norms. – user27414 Jul 29 '10 at 14:39
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    @Jon: If I can do something, then I'd damn well better do it as often and with as much gusto as possible so that the deferrers can't take it away from me. Having the ability to do something and having the judgement to determine when it is appropriate to do that are paramount. If I can do something, it should be up to me to decide how and when to do it. With respect to Stack Overflow features, I decide for myself how to use them and I find it disturbing that people defer to others before acting. – Welbog Jul 29 '10 at 14:45
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    @Welbog - he wasn't asking permission, he was asking for advice. There's nothing wrong with that. – user27414 Jul 29 '10 at 14:48
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    There's a certain irony here. Welbog wants people to behave as they see fit. Some people think it is best to ask questions on MSO about how to behave. Welbog doesn't want them to do so, he wants them to behave as he sees fit by not asking the questions. If we all read this post and decided to stop asking questions about how to behave, then we would no longer be thinking for ourselves, we would be letting Welbog think for us. – user27414 Jul 29 '10 at 15:00
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    When I am sitting outside and I want to light a cigar, if there are people around me, I will ask if they mind. It's simple polite courtesy -- what if the guy 5' away is allergic? I don't see the difference here. These users are asking what the societal norms are before they get slapped down the community's junior janitors and/or mods -- nothing wrong with that, IMHO. OTOH, nothing wrong with you finding it disturbing, either – John Rudy Jul 29 '10 at 15:14
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    @Welbog - there is no rule on SO that requires you to ask MSO how to behave. There's nothing that even suggests it. In fact, MSO is kind of hard to find! Someone who comes here to ask a question had to think for himself to get here and ask that question. – user27414 Jul 29 '10 at 15:15
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    I am behaving as I see fit, thank you very much. – Erick Robertson Jul 29 '10 at 15:24
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    @devinb: I'd write something sarcastic and funny about folks leaving comments saying they're gonna comment later, but I just woke up and I'm too sleepy. Don't go anywhere or do anything - I'll be back as soon as I've had more coffee! – Shog9 Jul 29 '10 at 15:43
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    @Michael: If my being insightful is surprising to you then maybe you need to re-evaluate how you view the world. – Welbog Jul 29 '10 at 16:12

MetaStackOverflow: It's about Respect

Anyone asking for help is automatically a supplicant. They are placing themselves at a disadvantage by revealing their ignorance. There are two basic ways to admit weakness (however minor). You can be respectful or you can be denigrating. Denigrating usually takes the form: "I need you to do this for me", respect follows the form "Could you help me?".

Everyone has their preferences for which way they prefer to ask and which way they prefer to be asked. On StackOverflow, the norms certainly tend towards being completely respectful. Respect is also generally the business language for consultants and developers1. Especially on StackOverflow where there is literally zero incentive to help "you" particularly, people have found that respect is the best way to generate results.

Because the natural inclination that developers have learned is to be respectful when they need something from someone who owes them nothing, they will carry that tendency over to StackOverflow. This includes reading FAQs, manuals, and occasionally seeking advice about the best way to, well, seek advice.

This is NOT an indication of indecision, spinelessness, or second-guessing. All of those things are generally bad traits. This knowledge-seeking is an indication of interest, involvement, and engagement. They are actively trying to better incorporate themselves without rocking the boat.

As a consultant, I am often new. I arrive on a project that is out-of-shape and am told to fix it. When I see something wrong, I can dive in and fix it, or I can ask someone about it. I'll cut to the punchline. When I dive in and fix it, everything else breaks. Anyone else on the project could have easily told me not to do what I was attempting to do, that is, trying to interact without proper respect for history. Not only that, but in not asking those people around me, I was showing a lack of respect for their help.

So no, it is not squeamishness, spinelessness or fear that causes people to post on Meta.
and no, it is not self-doubt, lack of self-confidence, or blind deference.
and no, it is not anti-democratic, or lacking in freedom.

I have freedom to act as I please, I have the confidence to know I'll do it right, and I have respect for the people who came before me.

1 Managers and clients, well, they're mostly denigrating, but they're paying to have that pleasure.

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    I am OK with this. I think I can find it a bit less disturbing if I think about it this way. Thank you. – Welbog Jul 29 '10 at 16:13
  • This is very close to what I was trying to say, but you've done a much cleaner job of it. Well said. – beska Jul 29 '10 at 17:26
  • So can I say anything I want as long as I preface it "with all due respect..."? – Kirk Kuykendall Feb 15 '11 at 15:41
  • With all do respect, your a !@#$&*$:) – Herbert Aug 31 '11 at 13:12

Seeking advice from others does not mean you're not thinking for yourself.

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    Nor does it mean that you're thinking for yourself. It's just the way these things are phrased sometimes. It just rubs me the wrong way and makes me think that they're deferring rather than asking for independent verification. I don't have anything concrete other than this feeling. – Welbog Jul 29 '10 at 14:08
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    @Weblog: Then downvote them and move on to the next ... Seems to be the right answer. Personally, I'd rather have someone ask if they're doing the right thing beforehand, than come to Meta and whine about their closure/deletion/downvotes/what-have-you afterward. – John Rudy Jul 29 '10 at 14:54
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    Personally, I'd rather have someone ask if they're doing the right thing beforehand, than come to Meta and whine about their closure/deletion/downvotes/what-have-you afterward. @Dr.G Last I checked, they still end up whining on meta. – perbert Jul 29 '10 at 15:20
  • @perbert: Touche. – John Rudy Jul 29 '10 at 15:54

Something related to this came up recently in a discussion on ahem unpaid, in-answer advertising.

One user proposed a standard format for disclosure (a polite way to say, "I endorse this product that makes me money"). There was some disagreement, but overall it received a fair bit of support. An "advertiser" saw this and assumed that it meant he was free to advertise in his answers, provided he adhered to the format...

...When some of his answers were flagged as spam, he became confused and saddened. "Why are these vigilantes flagging me?" he asked, "Can't they see that I've agreed to the format proposed above? Why aren't they reading Meta before taking action on Stack Overflow?"

But of course, most users don't read documentation, even when it's official and linked to on every page. It takes a special sort of person to unwrap a shiny new toy and then put it aside, untouched, while he carefully reads all the documentation*.

And Meta users are nothing if not "special". Really special. We're the sort of people who download the documentation before ever buying the product, and then go looking for additional documentation, written by other users, most of whom are still busy reading the documentation themselves, their shiny new toy still sitting, untouched, in the plastic nearby...

Ain't we something?

*Including the small print in the warranty and the tiny scrawled signature under the "QC" sticker...

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    +1: Because we're definitely "something". – beska Jul 29 '10 at 17:27

Learn from other's mistakes, you don't have time to make them all by yourself.

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Two things could explain this to a degree:

  • They earn rewards by asking questions here
  • They are more likely to earn rewards by participating on the parent site after consulting with their peers.

Part of this is probably that people do not want to do anything that puts their reputation at risk. I don't know if thats 'good' or 'bad', its just human nature.

A significant number of people (note, I won't say most people) favor knowing the rules on how to behave prior to behaving. That phenomenon extends way beyond Q&A web sites.

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This site has been so helpful in my efforts to learn Objective C (having saved me dozens if not hundred of hours already), that I want to make sure I know how best and most properly to use it so I don't waste other people's time. If I'm on some blog about kittens that look like Hitler I have no worries about making an idiot of myself. Here, I know that sooner or later there are going to be questions I have that haven't been answered, so I want to be able to ask them in the correct manner.

It's similar to the reason why people worry about playing blackjack appropriately in a casino...

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Not trusting their own decisions could not be the (only) answer. Because there are leading examples where they can seek orientation, like this weird guy, who has almost 200,000 rep points and lots and lots of 0-vote answers.

So, what else? Fear. Fear to act wrong, fear to be laughed at, fear to not be part of the whole thing. Well, at least, that would explain to me, why they do not look at what other users do. Fear can block thinking.

Whatever it is, which make them post here, missing self-confidence could only be a part of the answer. They do not trust their own abilities, they do not trust their own thinking. Sounds like fear.

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People are scared to be wrong. They're scared to make waves.

Stack Overflow allows them to build credence for their ideas. If a question is highly voted or their answer is highly voted, then they know they're probably not wrong.

I care a lot about what other people think of me, but I don't let it run my life. I admit that I get a twinge of happiness when I see people vote up a comment I make. It lets me know I'm not crazy.

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