When confronted with a particularly vexing programming problem, many developers will head over to Stack Overflow, where (if they’re lucky) they’ll find the solution in one of the site’s question-and-answer threads.
But while Stack Overflow is great at presenting programming knowledge, its culture apparently needs to change, according to the people who run it. In an April 26 blog posting, Jay Hanlon, the site’s EVP of Culture and Experience, suggested there are two overarching problems:
“Too many people experience Stack Overflow¹ as a hostile or elitist place, especially newer coders, women, people of color, and others in marginalized groups.
“Our employees and community have cared about this for a long time, but we’ve struggled to talk about it publicly or to sufficiently prioritize it in recent years. And results matter more than intentions.”
When Stack Overflow’s creators started the site, they made certain decisions about culture. For example, they discouraged users from saying “please” and “thank you,” believing that such terms are “noise” that crowd out valuable content. And while they encouraged users to point out mistakes in others’ code or reasoning, they didn’t provide any guidelines on how to do that in a respectful way.
“We failed to give our regular users decent tools to review content and easily find what they’re looking for,” Hanlon added. “We sent mixed messages over the years about whether we’re a site for ‘experts’ or for anyone who codes.”
Stack Overflow’s next steps are somewhat unclear. The site plans on engaging in “user research,” and may do things like updating its content for “inclusive language.” Community managers could be encouraged to more aggressively flag and delete “unkind” comments, and newer users could see a refined “ask page” that breaks down questions more thoroughly—the better to encourage specific, helpful answers from the community.
Whatever the outcome of this soul-searching, Stack Overflow will no doubt remain a valuable resource for developers and other tech pros for quite some time to come. Its current angst also highlights a continual issue for tech pros, especially ones just joining the industry: occasional outbursts of snark in response to honest technical questions. There’s nothing lost in being kind, and doing so can help you build your connections—and even start friendships!