How to ask good Stack Overflow questions.

Many programmers have low opinions of Stack Overflow. For those of you who don’t know, Stack Overflow is a Q&A site meant specifically for coders. However, it has a reputation for… how shall I say it… being a bit of an elitist gatekeeper-esque very beginner unfriendly place. On the flip side, Stack Overflow is the largest repository of developer answers and questions on the internet, and it’s one of the most visited websites for coding questions by developers, if not the most.

It’s also a great repository for those just learning. Google a question about JavaScript’s apparent lack of a verbatim string feature like C#, it’s guaranteed Stack Overflow (also referred to as SO) is going to be one of the first results. In fact, according to a 2018 developer survey done by SO users, more than 50% have learned to code in the last 5 years.

 

And yet SO has the reputation for being “mean” to new users.

Quoting Jonah Bishop:

Stack Overflow has always been a better-than-average resource for finding answers to programming questions. In particular, I have found a number of helpful answers to really obscure questions on the site, many of which helped me get past a road block either at work or in my hobby programming. As such, I decided I’d join the site to see if I could help out. Never before has a website given me a worse first impression.

“Never before has a website given me a worse first impression”. Huh.

And yet, every developer and their mother uses SO extensively to find answers to their questions, and many developers thrive on there. Why do so many people hate it and yet find it endlessly useful?

The no tolerance attitude.

Stack Overflow is a very difficult site to get involved with. They have lots of hurdles to jump through if you want to become a user with any power to do anything, including making comments, setting “bounties” (incentivizing users to answer your questions for more points), moderating posts, editing without being subject to peer review, and more. This makes it difficult for someone to join Stack Overflow with malicious intent, as the limited status of new users makes their actions very inconsequential unless they have spent a lot of time and effort on the site. Additionally, most everything on Stack Overflow is business. “Please help”, “Thanks”, and other extraneous and useless information is quickly obliterated from your post. “Me too!” and “Thanks!” comments agreeing with a question are removed and down voted. To some, this may seem mean. To the thousands of developers that didn’t have to wade through a 40+ comment chain to find the answer they were looking for, as it was sitting as the only response, highlighted green, it is a godsend.

The fact that Stack Overflow has been around since 2008.

Let’s face it, there are only so many coding questions to ask. Every problem can be broken down into a list of steps with their own problems. Keep breaking a problem down enough, and you can figure out pretty much anything if it’s possible. So what happens when someone joins Stack Overflow and asks the redundant question, “Why is my Console.Log just printing an object array” or something? It’s downvoted, flagged, and removed or closed. This leads to the user feeling hurt that their question wasn’t important enough, that everyone ganged up on them, or everyone on Stack Overflow is an elitist ***hole. However, this kind of intensive moderation is what keeps Stack Overflow so neat and tidy, and easy to find answers to the questions you’re looking for.

Stack Overflow is an English only website.

English is the only language allowed on Stack Overflow, so it’s always a difficult language barrier for someone to ask a question or phrase it properly. This leads to very terrible Facebook/YouTube-comment section looking posts that have errant grammar everywhere, or no one can make any coherent sense of what they’re saying. I try to edit these whenever I see them to be clear and concise, but usually if they’re in this state they’re beyond saving.

Sometimes, the system doesn’t work.

I’m not saying Stack Overflow is perfect. Far from it, actually. But it’s lasted from 2008 to today, and will last for many more years yet, because of their rules and moderation. Although, nothing is perfect. Sometimes, Stack Overflow fails. And when that happens, it can be really easy to focus on the bad. One common complaint is the closing of a question for being a duplicate. This can easily become an annoying rabbit hole to go down, as you’ll arrive at a question that you have, and see it’s been closed as a duplicate of another question which is similar, but not the same as the question you had. Annoying, and probably fixable, but they’re trying. If you ever want to see what they have to deal with, try going to the NEW questions on SO and refreshing a few times. The vast majority of questions are hot garbage, no offense to the askers.

 

This blog post has rambled on for enough, but let me collect everything into one final opinion. Stack Overflow’s perceived “elitist” attitude is a necessary evil in my eyes, and I’m extremely grateful that it’s been there for me on long coding sessions at 5:00 in the morning, and I bet the vast majority of coders are too.


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3 thoughts on “How to ask good Stack Overflow questions.”

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