Is Stack Overflow Too Mean?

I am not sure if you knew Stack Overflow had a podcast. I didn’t for the longest time and apparently it stopped running for awhile. Going through the list of post shows though, I came across an episode called “Stack Overflow Reads Mean Tweets” which got me thinking. Is Stack Overflow too mean?

There is definitely a perception (okay maybe it’s a glaringly obvious reality) that asking questions on Stack Overflow can be daunting. Not that it’s hard, it just feels like the moderators seem hell bent on preventing questions from ever being asked. This then leads to blow ups on social media and blog posts about the demise of Stack Overflow.

Despite that perception, Stack Overflow still seems to grow with over 19 million questions and 28 million answers (check out their data explorer). People continue to ask questions and getting answers. So are the complaints much ado about nothing or is there something deeper here?

As Abby Mars, Stack Overflow’s Director of Community Operations and Management, shared on the podcast, they are working on ideas like mentoring new users, directing them to experienced users when they ask a question, and modifying the ask question text prompt to guide users in forming a quality question.

The point is to ensure that users learn how to ask properly formed questions. Questions that are not on topic and are not answerable (like recommendation questions), will always get shot down by the community. By the standards recommended by Stack Overflow, these are expected behaviors in order to ensure good quality content. They expect users will provide each other honest feedback as a means to educate users to improve their content.

There is definitely a toxic aspect to the Stack Overflow community. In the zeal to correct less experienced users and maintain quality, the comments and language used by members in the community has often crossed the line into harassment and toxicity. This most impacts new users, students, women , and marginalized peoples who often end up the targets of hostile comments.

Users need to learn to be more empathetic and nicer about how they engage with each other. That is why Stack Overflow originally created the “Be Nice” policy and have been vigilant about removing comments and suspending users in the community that cross the line into personal attacks, humiliation, bullying, and bigotry.

There are IT leaders I have spoken with when discussing setting up an internal community that have brought meanness as a concern. It is a different when inside an organization. On sites like Stack Overflow, Reddit and others, they are dealing with tens of millions of users, many of whom are anonymous. In am organization, it’s a smaller scale, there is no anonymity, and there is an expectation of professionalism that people will respect each other. The sense of commonality of being in the same organization with a shared purpose is usually all that is needed to maintain a respectful demeanor.

That being said, there are ways to ensure interactions are civil. The first thing to realize is that most people will not have experience asking questions. For example, Stack Overflow provides guidance on asking good questions. There are also some really excellent resources on how to write the perfect question. Users asking good questions is the first step, a topic we have helped organization with and share in this post on asking good technical questions.

The other important note is to make sure your community moderators are clear on what content is allowed and the role they play. It should be less about policing usage and more about mentoring and guiding users. Have someone assigned as the Community Manager to guide the moderators and educate them on how to gently support users and the community.

And remember to press pause on the Internet rage!

What has been your experience in using online developer communities? Have you seen issues arise from internal communities become toxic?

Why is the Stack Overflow community so aggressive about question criteria?

Some thoughts on questions and what makes sense to share in a community…

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