I Stopped Contributing To Stackoverflow, But It’s Not Declining

“The decline of Stackoverflow” is now trending on reddit, and I started this post as a comment in the thread, but it got too long.

I’m in the 0.01% (which means rank #34) but I haven’t contributed almost anything in the past 4 years. Why I stopped is maybe part of the explanation why “the decline of stackoverflow” isn’t actually happening.

The mentioned article describes the experience of a new user as horrible – you can’t easily ask a question without having it downvoted, marked as duplicate, or commented on in a negative way. The overall opinion (of the article and the reddit thread) seems to be that SO “the elite” (the moderators) has become too self-important and is acting on a whim for an alleged “purity” of the site.

But that’s not how I see it, even though I haven’t been active since “the good old days”. This Hacker news comment has put it very well:

StackOverflow is a machine designed to do one thing: make it so that, for any given programming question, you will get a search engine hit on their site and find a good answer quickly. And see some ads.
That’s really it. Everything it does is geared toward that, and it does it quite well.
I have lots of SO points. A lot of them have come from answering common, basic questions. If you think points exist to prove merit, that’s bad. But if you think points exist to show “this person makes the kind of content that brings programmers to our site and makes them happy”, it’s good. The latter is their intent.

So why I stopped contributing? There were too many repeating questions/themes, poorly worded, too many “homework” questions, and too few meaningful, thought provoking questions. I’ve always said that I answer stackoverflow questions not because I know all the answers, but because I know a little more about the subject than the person asking. And those seemed to give way (in terms of percentage) to “null pointer exception”, “how to fix this [40 lines pasted] code” and “Is it better to have X than Y [in a context that only I know and I’m not telling you]”. (And here’s why I don’t agree that “it’s too hard to provide an answer on time”. If it’s not one of the “obvious” questions, you have plenty of time to provide an answer).

And if we get back to the HN quote – the purpose of the site is to provide answers to questions. If the questions are already answered (and practically all of the basic ones are), you should have found the answer, rather than asking it again. Because of that maybe somethings non-trivial questions get mistaken for “on, not another null pointer exception”, in which cases I’ve been actively pointing out that this is the case and voting to reopen. But that’s rare. All the examples in the “the decline of stackoverflow” article and in the reddit thread are I believe edge cases (and one is a possible “homework question”). Maybe these “edge cases” are now more prevalent than when I was active, but I think the majority of the new questions are still coming from people too lazy to google one or two different wordings of their problem. Which is why I even summarized the basic steps of finding a problem before asking on SO.

So I wouldn’t say the moderators are self-made tyrants that are hostile to anyone new. They just have a knee-jerk reaction when they see yet-another-duplicate-or-homework-or-subjective question.

And that’s not simply for the sake of purity – the purpose of the site is to provide answers. If the same question exists in 15 variations, you may not find the best answer (it has happened to me – I find three questions that for some reason aren’t marked as duplicate – one contains just a few bad answers, and the other one has the solution. If google happens to place the former ontop, one may think it’s actually a hard question).

There are always “the trolls”, of course – I have been serially downvoted (so all questions about serial downvoting are duplicates), I have had even personal trolls that write comments on all my recent answers. But…that’s the internet. And those get filtered quickly, no need to get offended or think that “the community is too hostile”.

In the past week I’ve been doing a wordpress plugin as a side project. I haven’t programmed in PHP in 4 years and I’ve never written a wordpress plugin. I had a lot of questions, but guess what – all of them were already answered, either on stackoverflow, or in the documentation, or in some blogpost. We shouldn’t assume our question is unique and rush to asking it.

On the other hand, even the simplest questions are not closed just because they are simple. One of my favourite examples is the question whether you need a null check before calling an instanceof. My answer is number 2, with a sarcastic comment that this could be tested in an IDE for a minute. And a very good comment points out that it takes less than that to get the answer on Stackoverflow.

It may seem that most of the questions are already answered now. And that’s probably true for the general questions, for the popular technologies. Fortunately our industry is not static and there are new things all the time, so stackoverflow is going to serve those.

It’s probably a good idea to have different rules/thresholds for popular tags (technologies) and less popular ones. If there’s a way to differentiate trivial from non-trivial questions, answers to the non-trivial ones could be rewarded with more reputation. But I don’t think radical changes are needed. It is inevitable that after a certain “saturation point” there will be fewer contributors and more readers.

Bottom line:

  • I stopped contributing because it wasn’t that challenging anymore and there are too many similar, easy questions.
  • Stackoverflow is not declining, it is serving its purpose quite well.
  • Mods are not evil jerks that just hate you for not knowing something
  • Stackoverflow is a little more boring for contributors now than it was before (which is why I gradually stopped answering), simply because most of the general questions have already been answered. The niche ones and the ones about new technologies remain, though.
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27 thoughts on “I Stopped Contributing To Stackoverflow, But It’s Not Declining”

  1. ” Stackoverflow is a little more boring for contributors now than it was before (which is why I gradually stopped answering), simply because most of the general questions have already been answered. ”

    A while ago I posted, the exact same thing, but pertaining to the fact that new user won’t be able to gain reputation that easily as the early users did. It was highly downvoted on meta.

  2. I agree with you mostly when it comes to the moderation part. But some of the sister communities of SO — mainly http://workplace.stackexchange.com/ and to a lesser extent http://english.stackexchange.com/ — are run by moderators who treat it as their country club.

    These are the main annoyances and turnoffs I experience with SO:

    1) You get very muted response or even get trashed for asking a complex question which touches more than one technology or paradigm. These are not the usual textbook style questions, rather questions based on problems faced in enterprise grade projects. I do not expect SO users to solve my problems and I do have probably some ideas on how to solve them, but nevertheless I expect that some of the best programmers in the world who use SO site will have much better ideas on how to solve them. But usually you do not get much of a response

    2) OTOH you see some very silly questions getting a tremendous amount of attention and coming on top of the “featured” tab. These are the type of questions with very little practical value, nevertheless a good number of users on SO found the question cute. Sometimes these kind of questions are even pure waste of time, adding little to your understanding as a programmer

    My favourite is this one http://stackoverflow.com/questions/20945049/is-a-java-string-really-immutable. Here the question clearly has little practical value, it just shows the lack of understanding of the concept of immutability and API guarantees from the OPs side

    3) Reputation concentration problem. Oldest users like Jon Skeet continues to accumulate more reputation even for their newest posts, though their latest answers are not much better than those from users of lower reputation. Somehow users seem to instinctively upvote those with more reputation

  3. Dunno about a total reset but maybe your score could start decreasing as a penalty for inactivity… lose 5% for every month without answering a question, something like that.

  4. FYI, I’m the author of that article. I initially published it in July 2015, when it got ±65,000 views in two days. I republished it @ Hackernoon this weekend at their request, which resulted in ±125,000 additional page views, bringing the total page views of the article since its publication in 2015 to ±245,000. The fact that this article went viral TWICE (while none of my other articles even got to 5000 views) illustrates how many people experience the same frustrations.

    On SO, I currently have 11,914 rep, 9 gold badges, 66 silver badges and 73 bronze badges. I’ve posted 492 answers and 6 questions (that haven’t been deleted). I’ve been programming since 1999 and I’ve worked as an IT professional since 2006, and my experience ranges from PHP and JS to SAP and PL/SQL. I also released my own open source frontend framework and several other open source projects on Github. So I know how to program and understand many of SO’s intricate workings!

    Those rare times I’m stuck on a programming issue, I find it impossible to find any useful answer on SO. My questions either get no answers at all or downvoted and/or closed (for arbitrary reasons) by people who clearly lack the experience to even remotely understand what I’m talking about.

    During my time on SO, I’ve been bullied by 20+k users several times and even got a temporary ban by one of them moderators for no other reason but pointing out that another user was acting like “a little Hitler”… in a private conversation with moderation.

    Yes, other communities have similar problems, but never have I been a member of a community where bullying and trolling was so common among the most privileged segments of its membership.

    Considering the popularity of my article, I’m considering writing a follow-up and go in greater detail on my experiences with SO and how SO could be improved.

    However, I’m quite busy these days, so it may take a while before it actually gets published… if it ever gets published.

    Nevertheless, these are my 5 cents I’d like to add here…

  5. Your claim of this being accurate is way off mark: “find a good answer”

    SO is not about finding good answers. It’s not in their mission statement, and the moderators operate on the basis that “preserving the spirit” of an answer is more valuable than making it correct.

    SO is only about collecting as many answers as it can, period. Quality does not factor in.

  6. @John Slegers – No, you actually were banned for copying other answers and plagiarizing them as your own in order to receive more reputation. You also abused the new “documentation” feature and spammed the queue with trivial edits.

    To anyone else reading this comment, just check the guy’s profile out – http://stackoverflow.com/users/1946501/john-slegers

    Don’t play the victim and claim that “you’ve been bullied”.

  7. @Md Tareque Khan:

    > A while ago I posted, the exact same thing, but
    > pertaining to the fact that new user won’t be able to
    > gain reputation that easily as the early users did. It
    > was highly downvoted on meta.

    In case you’ve missed it. The article says that there are too many [presumably easy] questions that are already answered many times:

    > There were too many repeating questions/themes, poorly
    > worded, too many “homework” questions, and too few
    > meaningful, though[t] provoking questions.

    It means there are plenty of questions for new users (not all easy question are bad questions). There are few questions (relatively) that experienced in the specific topic developer would find interesting. But it was true from the day one of Stack Overflow existence.

    I don’t know about you but I’m a newbie in most topics and if I don’t work on something; I forget the details. There are many *easy* questions that I’ve found useful as a reader on Stack Overflow.

    Also, I don’t understand the obsession with imaginary internet points (I understand the psychology: it has aspects of a game to promote the desired behavior on the site—it works (mostly)—but I don’t understand why to take it so seriously). The more active you are on the site the more reputation you get: most people won’t answer even 5 questions (it is a mute point to discuss the reputation in this case) (it is likely the power law e.g., “richest 1% own half of global wealth” i.e., it has nothing to do with “declining”—it is like HN becoming reddit: yes, there are issues that should be addressed but no, it is not so dramatic if you do the math).

  8. >Mods are not evil jerks that just hate you for not knowing >something

    Most of them aren’t, but it takes just one jerk mod to make a potential contributor to give up.

  9. Personally I’ve found the quality of the content on SO so low in recent years I’ve taken to appending

    -site:stackoverflow.com

    to the end of nearly all my programming related google queries.

  10. There’s obvious frustration on either sides, newcomers and long term contributors, and I can understand both collectives, but the latter is more right than the former—and not just because of coming first.

    The newbie has been led to believe it’s yet another forum where we can ask anything and get it answered within minutes—a Yahoo Answers for code. But Stack Overflow is mainly a collective knowledge base. And unless we come with a pretty good idea it cannot be both things at the same time and none of these collectives would actually benefit from an eventual shift to good old loosely moderated forum. I like using the park metaphor: you did come here attracted by nature and fresh air—then don’t get pissed if you’re asked to use garbage cans and refrain from smoking.

    My most upvoted answers are so obvious that I periodically edit them to try and give them some substance. Meanwhile I get negative scores for extraordinary findings nobody else spotted. Askers ignore me when I ask for specific and trivial to get additional information and rush to accept the first block of code that compiles. Yes, those are endless sources of frustration, but I don’t think they represent a fundamental flaw in the site philosophy.

    A bigger worry would be that any in-depth and really difficult question will go unanswered and not just unvoted. Yet that’s exactly what happens in any online-community I’ve ever joined.

  11. I’m an inexperienced and self-taught programmer. Consequently I never turn to SO for homework help, but I do often need an answer to simple questions. So I want to offer a (partial) defense of repetitive questions.

    I want to say that SO has been an invaluable resource for me, in particular for the simple and repetitive kinds of questions you discuss. There is nothing so illuminating as a well-written question with one (or more!) well-written answers. I am very grateful to the contributors who take the time to write clear answers with examples.

    While there are obviously parasites on SO – I mean the people who want “the answer” but clearly haven’t searched for it – there is also a never-ending supply of inexperienced people like myself. Sometimes, the barrier to finding the answer is searching with the right phrase, and in those cases finding a question answered with “search for XXX” is really helpful. Other times I’ve completely misunderstood the source of the problem, and in those cases questions about “error Y” answered with an explanation of how problem X leads to “error Y” downstream are invaluable. For people lacking a systematic education, questions that are fundamentally redundant may not seem so; until someone explains that “this is really a case of XXX”.

    All that said, there must surely be a better way to identify repetitive questions and point them in the right direction than with contributor effort… otherwise SO will tend to exhaust its best contributors.

  12. My own experience with answering question on SO was that it became extremely tiring having to defend myself against an army of (I think) European “hobby” programmers who acted like know-it-alls but obviously had no actual industry experience. Even though my answers were always practical, I got nothing for it except grief. I no longer bother.

    The other issue that got highly annoying was answering a question, having it accepted, and then months or years later, having some yutz down vote me because the API changed or the version discussed changed. In other words, there is a time decay for answers but no real way of explaining that to readers except for a passive-agressive downvote mechanism.

  13. Dear “Anon” (nice name!):

    “To anyone else reading this comment, just check the guy’s profile out […] Don’t play the victim and claim that “you’ve been bullied”.”

    I looked at his profile, and fully half of his questions have negative votes, despite looking like perfectly good questions. There are no comments explaining how to improve these questions, or justifying the downvotes.

    If examining his S.O. profile was supposed to convince me that he’s not being bullied there, it actually did just the opposite.

  14. Don’t let down votes get to you. It’s just numbers. And even if you got down voted to zero you’re still ahead because up votes count for more imaginary points.

  15. “So why I stopped contributing? There were too many repeating questions/themes, poorly worded, too many “homework” questions…” stackoverflow is a community of programmers helping each other. What do you have against a programmer-in-training seeking help with a homework question?

  16. @Zan

    SO (and the broader SE ecosystem) has always tried to have it both ways in regards to reputation. It tries to tell you that reputation is just a meaningless number, but at the same time walls off all of almost of all of its features behind it.

    New users can do almost nothing without reputation. And, if you don’t spend your days stalking the new questions, you’ll continue to be able to do nothing for quite a long time, because of how hard it is for new users to earn reputation.

  17. Well, I think duplicated questions shouldn’t be downvoted, they only be marked as duplicated with the right link to the former/right answer.

  18. I’ve turned to SO many times this past year while learning to code apps in Javascript and it has been immensely helpful.

    The only thing that has bothered me is that because I have so few points I am unable to up-vote those answers that help me. This seemed a bit illogical to me. I can see where that feature might be abused to boost a members reputation but it also prevents legitimate users that want to express they did find the answer they were looking for.

    I have to admit though, the “points” and “reputation” system seems like it could use a review. I haven’t really given it much thought but it does feel a bit too exclusive and competitive.

    The main thing about SO for me though is that when I finally decided to stop stubbornly banging my head for days and just go check SO first my increase in productivity was remarkable and I generally end up learning more in the process as well.

    To conclude, SO is a fantastic resource. If we could count and valuate the hours it has saved developers like me it I suspect we’d find it is worth at least many $millions to the economy and that shouldn’t go unnoticed by anyone familiar with it.

  19. I am relatively new (in points/status) to SO, and I CONSTANTLY read blogs about how SO is some unique site that does Q&A for programmers and how new users are inevitably going to be screwed because all basic questions have been asked.

    Well, I hate to disagree, and perhaps you don’t like the facts behind things, but the fact is one can ask duplicate questions all day long so long as they do it right. It involves posting ones specific case scenario with their code, and why suggested answer are either not working, or what the questioner is not understanding about the answers.

    Granted I have had many people try to close my questions as duplicates claiming them already answered and telling me “I just have to think and understand how to apply the solutions to my problems” – but that claim I find rarely holds true because and I often get my questions reopened because of it. The fact is someone could argue to close all of SO down, as every question has already been answered in the documentation of the programming languages.

    I mean if its just a matter of “you just have to think and apply existing solutions to your own problems” then SO could just be closed – as what problem could SO possibly answer that a programming language doesn’t already answer in its docs.

    Instead SO (the paid teams) actually understand this and so they don’t simply say “its already been answered” they say “copy all relevant code from the docs to SO, don’t just link to documentation”, meaning they know there site is doing nothing more than answering questions already answered.

    I also find it ironic that virtually everyone who posts about SO, talks about it as if it is THE stackexchange site – as if somehow SO is run differently from any of the other SE sites or is somehow the most important of the SE sites. Nothing could be further from the truth.

    The point system and reputation system is flawless. Check any SE site and you will see this to be true. There is also the fact that, asking a quality question garners far more rep than answering a question.

    Also the arguements of the point system, are flimsy at best. How hard is it really to gain rep? Simply join 2 SE sites as a new user – having never answered a question, and gain 100 points. When a question is closed for being poorly formatted, go to meta.SO and ask for help writing your question, you will get about 50+ in rep as all the people from META who help you, will also come and thumb up the question after it is written properly.

    The claim of “this is why I stopped using SO” is completely bogus. You stopped using SO, because you got bored with it and didn’t want to be part of the community and help the site grow. You only wanted to answer easy questions. I didn’t once see anyone point about the ability to write documentation and get points – perhaps cause its new and you abandoned usage so have no idea whats going on or all the new ways to earn points as a new user or vet of the site. What I am baffled by is your believe all basic questions have already been answered, as if there are not thousands of programming languages, new versions of programming languages, etc. Hell I still see people posting questions about php 5.4 while php7 is released…. so clearly there is a never ending supply of new question.

    And finally, the claim of any decline, is blatantly untrue. Alexa shows the traffic scores have continues to climb over the past two years every month and one can use logic and knowledge of the internet to reasonably assume with a never ending increase in traffic, comes more members and users, not less – not a decline.

    So… there ya have it.

  20. The point system and reputation system is flawless.

    #fanboy

    I’ve noticed the downvoting too, with no explanation. Reminds me of the Wikipedia zealots. Yes, I read Wikipedia, but I won’t contribute to it.

    SO is a valuable service and Joel & Co do nice work. Amazing work. So it is sad to hear about this decline. My free suggestion to SO: do a better job at cultivating your megastars. Sure, I’ve heard of bozho, like many of the top SO contributors – they are what makes SO amazingly great. It’s mindboggling how they put so much time into this, create beautiful, clean, concise answers – for free.

    So maybe monetization is the answer. Surely SO is making some extra dough off those ads, should they share some of that back, to the very people who, to use the words of a salesperson I knew once, sell shoes every day to pay your salary?

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  22. Hi Bozho

    Congratulation for your achievement in StackOverflow.

    So where you frequently use as the alternative now? Quora, reddit?

  23. I stopped answering too last year, February 2015 , with only 240 answers. It seems that everytime I invest my time thinking and solving OP’s specific problems, after that, some random people come easily and mark the questions as duplicate.

    But if I saw the duplicates answers, I saw only generalization answers for the problems.

    What tags are those? They are around JSP, Sevlet, and JSF. Especially JSF.

    Of course, I don’t mind minds the questions themself being marked as duplicate if the answers could be simply be given with general ways. But in those questions mosts of them required problem solving, starting from identifying OP’s errors, understanding the flow of his/her code and end up with implementing code according to his/her implementation.

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