A Kinder, Gentler Community

4 min readMay 14, 2018

A couple of weeks ago an article asked the question, can a workplace be too nice? This seems somewhat outlandish to think given how often we hear complaints of workplace gossip, power politics, and bad bosses.

You would think that having a nicer workplace is exactly the stress free and calming euphoria that we should all desire. The author begs to differ:

This emphasis on niceness leads to poor decision-making and low levels of creativity by limiting the number of inputs a group will consider and diverting focus away from risk-taking and results.

It’s ironic then that the very nature of expecting niceness has the very opposite effect. Such workplaces become “tyrannies of conformity and inequality” and are themselves aggressive in nature by limiting the pool of creative and controversial ideas.

How should workplaces then support a culture that is open to new and differing ideas? They need to allow for an environment that fosters respectful conflict.

In recent years, Stack Overflow has been very public about wanting to make Stack a friendlier place. It has been a known issue that Stack Overflow is a toxic experience for asking questions, especially for marginalized peoples and new users. These users simply want an answer to a question, but often face a barrage of negative reactions via comments, downvotes, and question closing.

This conflict stems from the very purpose behind Stack Overflow. As the Jon Skeet states:

The goal of Stack Overflow is to create a repository of high-quality questions, and high-quality answers to those questions.

The laudable goal was that the content created by users would be the Wikipedia of programming knowledge. That is what Stack Overflow has become, with over 18 million questions asked on the site over the past decade. To achieve this goal, the site specifically catered to experienced programmers in order to provide quality content that would become canonical knowledge.

But from the new user perspective, they simply want answers as quickly as possible to a problem. They are novices without the experience of asking questions on a site built for experts. They want to get unstuck, but in the process of seeking the most logical place to get an answer, they hit a roadblock. It’s like telling a new skier to ski down a double black diamond trail and expecting them not to fall down.

Could Stack Overflow lower the standards? Yes, but that would compromise the faith of millions of programmers that trust the content on the site as high-quality. It would also poison the relationship with the moderators and users who try their hardest to triage and answer the flood of questions.

The conflict is necessary. It is what keeps the site balanced with quality content and a community of volunteers willing to freely contribute their knowledge and intellectual horsepower on the behalf of strangers.

Jay Hanlon, the former head of culture at Stack Overflow, made a good point in a discussion earlier in the year that they can still have quality while being a kinder site for users. He agreed with the need to be more vigilant on fostering a culture of respectful discussion and removing the jerks. In his words, Stack Overflow needs to be a community where the default mode of operating is to help each other so that all users can become better developers.

That is the core balance in any community. The question is how to welcome and encourage new users while still being a community that can attract and be valuable to more experienced users. It requires encouraging patience and understanding with the experts of the community while helping the new members to quickly rise to a level of competency in order to become a positive contributor to the community. Having a code of conduct that everyone agrees to when joining the community is one step towards creating a more hospitable culture. Another good step is to have guidance and an onboarding experience for new users to make them aware of the expectations of the community and how to best contribute. For example, I recently created a presentation to help developers to ask better technical questions in online communities which you are free to use as well. Think about the specific skills needed that would help users feel confident in being actively involved in the community.

What about your own experiences asking a question on Stack Overflow or other online communities? What encourages you to want to contribute?

Why didn’t the Concorde have flaps or slats?

With all my recent flying and all, this was an interesting question…

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Thoughts on developers, digital transformation, startups, community building & engineering culture. Author is Mark Birch @ AWS 👉 https://twitter.com/marksbirch