Stack Overflow is Cruel and Lazy

Joseph Rubin
Aug 24, 2018 · 3 min read
The sun is setting on this old and venerable website.

Ok, it’s no secret that Stack Overflow is harsh toward new programmers.

And it’s not unfounded. There isn’t a day that goes by when I don’t see a terribly worded question, and many of them don’t even give enough information to understand what they are asking. Sometimes it feels like people don’t appreciate that others will be volunteering their own time to help them out.

And yet, the uncompromising adherence to lazy site rules and question guidelines is counterproductive and harmful. Take this question, for example. I’ll wait while you read it.

Done? Ok, bear with me.

The question is tagged with javascript and html. Those tags are accurate. In addition, a detailed account of the problem is given in the question statement. Nice.

The first comment says that since no code was given, and I quote, “then we can’t help you.”

What?

(S)he goes on to link the relevant portion of the help center guidelines. Just perfect. So what you’re saying is that, in the current sate, the asker cannot be helped. That’s just simply wrong.

To somebody who knows a bit about CSS, it is perfectly clear what the problem is. And, as the only answer points out (I was the answer author), there’s a simple, and frankly quite well known fix to this issue.

Yes, ok, having a code snippet is nice, and yes, ok, not including one means that the questioner probably didn’t spend as much time as they could have to help the readers help himself. But that does not mean that the question is a lost cause. By any means.

Unfortunately, not all agree. The question was closed for being “off topic” (which isn’t even true). It was closed after an accepted answer was given (which means that the question was, in fact, a success). And it was closed because “no effort was show from the user to solve he [sic] problem.”

Seriously?

(S)he was supposed to randomly guess at a solution which probably wasn’t going to work in order to satisfy an arbitrary rule?

The question was asked because the questioner did not know what to do. This is not a question where it is possible to solve the problem “halfway.” The solution is one line of code, and the questioner simply did not know it. And that’s fine. In fact, that’s the point of Stack Overflow. To learn something that you didn’t previously know.

And it doesn’t have to be this way.

The Stack Exchange network has many interesting Q&A sites. And most of them feel way less toxic than SO. I enjoy reading them. But we need change. We need to relax the rules on SO, or else do a better job of getting questioners to ask better questions, if only to stop cruel spectators from closing down their questions. Personally, I’d direct them toward this video.

That’s all for today. Thanks for reading along.