It’s Not Just You: Stack Overflow Is Still Full of Jerks

The annual Stack Overflow developer survey has a lot of good fodder and insight. This year, it also has one of the best self-owns we’ve seen in quite a while.

Stack Overflow admits it’s a toxic hell-stew.

Deep down in Stack Overflow’s 2019 Developer Survey is the ‘community’ section, which is a look at who uses Stack Overflow. It also gauges how often they use the platform, why they visit, and whether it’s useful to them. From the study, we have the following takeaways:

  • Most use Stack Overflow daily, or multiple times per day.
  • A majority have been using Stack Overflow for several years.
  • Almost all users go to find answers to their questions.
  • Comparing frequency of use and how often they find answers to their questions, most are successful.
  • Many think Stack Overflow saves them time compared to other resources

Late last year, Stack Overflow instituted new community guidelines, mandating that developers ‘be nice’ to one another. It offered up such gems as “If you Google it, you’ll find tutorials that can explain it much better than we can in an answer here,” as opposed to responding with, “You could Google this in 5 seconds.” It was an effort to clean up the site, which the company knew was just terrible.

Did it work? Nah.

Some 73 percent of respondents say Stack Overflow is just as welcoming to users as it was last year. When it asked respondents what they’d change about Stack Overflow, one of the more popular requests was to fix the “community culture.”

Women and men see Stack Overflow differently, too. When asked what they’d like changed, men most often responded with words like “bounty” and “force.” The words women used most were “condescending,” “replies,” “nicer,” “rude,” and “dumb.”

It’s not all terrible news; Stack Overflow reports “respondents who are people of color, especially black or of African descent, South Asian, and Hispanic or Latino/Latina, are especially likely to say they feel more welcome this year, both in the United States and worldwide,” which is awesome. And people are finding solutions to their problems, which is what the site is about anyway.

But when you’ve got to wade through a river of ego and spite before being told to “Google it,” we start to wonder how long people will tolerate a Stack Overflow where a “cultural shift” hasn’t yet taken hold.

35 Responses to “It’s Not Just You: Stack Overflow Is Still Full of Jerks”

  1. I remember back in the days when I was quite eager to learn coding for my studies, I asked questions on Stack Overflow and I always get unfriendly and sometimes rude replies (or they simply just downvoted you without explaining anything – I never posted any question without extensive search). There’s of course nice people who helped me out, but the rest of them were a bunch of ego people. That community’s attitudes was one of the reasons why my interests in programming reduced drastically.

    • Someone who loves his profession

      Honestly, if some rude answers to a question makes you interest in programming reduce drastically, then you don’t want to become a programmer. This business is about passion and suffering and endless joy. Not about getting your answer quickly from others.
      If you got rude answers to your question, you probably could have solved if you tired hard enough, and by hard enough I mean sleepless night, or you could have written exactly what did you try to solve it, or you could have shown that you at least know how to ask a good question.
      I want to take an opposite stance. This “not welcoming culture” was maybe a good thing. It would filter out all those who thought “well, there is money in Python, let me become a Python programmer” from those who “really wanted” to become a programmer.
      Just look at majority of Python questions nowadays in SO: stupid questions, that could have been answered by simply looking at documentation, tens of even more stupid answers.
      I love this profession, and it makes me sad to see how crowds of uninterested people are turning it into a senseless useless “copy-paste business”.
      If you want to learn something you have bring the necessary sacrifice for it. This includes, enduring some harsh comments from people who know more that you, and you should take these harsh comments as an opportunity to learn.

      • Random Name

        @Someone who loves his profession
        Think back before you wrote your first line of code. Maybe it was in high school or even before. Or maybe that first class in programming. A time when you really knew almost nothing about the business. When you asked that first question, would you have continued on if you had been called an “idiot”? First impressions matter and the surest way to turn people off is through harsh criticisms of their questions. It is also one of the worst and least effective methods of teaching. It isn’t even a good means of weeding out good versus terrible programmers. What harsh criticism is best at is creating a group of individuals that are willing to accept hostility and likely pass it on to others. A culture where questions are seen as “stupid” and people are generally “uninterested”. It’s hard to be passionate in a toxic environment where harsh criticism is the norm. If you want the passion to return, look inwards. Respond to question positively. You can still suggest looking up information and direct them towards those resources. But do so in a positive manner.

        • Justin

          Agreed. What’s the point in having an open forum of discussion where if you make even one tiny mistake in writing your question, the jerks nitpicking every tiny mistake will whine and moan about your whole question being invalid and pretending they don’t understand what you’re talking about just for drama and effect. Are they all robots with no ability to get the gestalt of a question? I’ve been a software developer for most of my life and a large part of being one is having an open, creative mindset. Especially with the English language! What is happening is self-absorbed internet trolls have invaded SO and the other StackExchange sites, and don’t give a damn about helping others, but instead would rather hyper-focus on perceived flaws and faults instead of being a positive, helpful individual. If someone cannot be helped due to a lack of information, what is so hard about POLITELY asking for it?

          Adding negativity to a situation does not improve anyone’s life, if they are a normal, emotionally mature individual. Berating and talking down to people is a terrible way to address questions, in any sphere of life, let alone SO and friends.

          Personally, I can’t stand people who try to fix problems by being aggressive, negative, domineering, harsh, overly critical, deliberately condescending, etc. I’m sure I’m not the only one out there who feels that way.

          • David Trapp

            “What’s the point in having an open forum of discussion” << This is exactly the misconception here that you (and many others) seem to have had and which led to frustration for both you and others. Stack Overflow is **not** a forum and it is explicitly **not** for discussions of any sort. It is a community-led knowledge base. People contribute questions and/or answers, and they have to adhere strict standards to make sure SO stays a professional knowledge base and doesn't water down to a forum (which is much less useful for people googling their problems). Getting help with your particular problem is a **side effect** of asking a question there – the main thing is that you are contributing to a knowledge base whose priority is to help the people who come **after** you. All these people who find what they are looking for **without** asking are benefitting the most, and that's where the main value of SO and its strict rules lies. Imagine you are contributing to Wikipedia. Would you be upset if someone reverts a change there and comments that it wasn't written in proper grammar, for instance? The same thing applies here – the questions are one half of each "knowledge base wiki article" – the other half are the answers, and **both** of these things have to be of quality to gain long-lasting value for the community.

      • I wouldn’t dream of asking questions on SO, I don’t even have an account, yet I’ve gotten many answers from SO from people who happened to have asked questions that helps me, so I have no doubt benefited from it. I have also noticed questions on reddit / discord where people more or less expect you to just write everything for them with minimal effort, perhaps the toxic culture of SO is what filters out the “noise” as it were and leaves behind something useful for everyone else. Everyone who’s suffered the rudeness essentially took the hit for the rest of us, a line has got to be drawn somewhere, if absolutely no one is negative at any point, then the site would be filled with totally unfiltered low effort questions (again, as you sometimes see on reddit / discord), it’ll end up being yahoo answers, if pushed to the other extreme, then only people who basically don’t need help would be left on there, rendering the platform pointless for what it sets out to do, at least I can say, right now, it’s at a place where it is a helpful website, albeit unpleasant at times when you see people with similar question as you being told in all sorts of sarcastic manner why they are absolutely worthless.

      • A life-long programmer

        The gatekeeping and arrogance endemic in programming is shameful. Yes, programming is hard. Yes, no everyone can cut it is as a developer. Those don’t excuse treating people badly, or stating that those who suffer rudeness deserve it for not trying hard enough.

        Programmers need to learn how to be decent human beings.

  2. What an unproductive article…What is the end goal here? At least Stack has been a productive tool for our community. Dice is filled with recruiters who do not know how to write a decent email. I wouldn’t in a million years visit dice.com. Instead of slamming another website, how about you update us on what Dice is doing to improve themselves? Not a good look

  3. Gamified human communication is a mistake.

    SO may have been a business success, but in helping developers, it has been a massive failure because of what it costs: millions of hours of developer talent wasted in meaninglessly deleted/closed questions, and countless opportunities for experts to share their own questions and information in the formats that best suit the needs of the problem. And let’s not forget the social damages of a toxic Internet.

    A world without SO/SE would likely have been one where people are still able to give longform questions and answers on their blogs or elsewhere without fear of having their well-crafted and even pertinent questions closed or deleted, and where competent people may not be incentivized by a cheap Skinner’s Box-style upvote fix, but won’t be actively discouraged from spending time thinking of ways to help people for the sake of helping other people.

  4. SO simply sucks. It is full of entitled incels. Programmers don’t tend to be geniuses, most of them are just regular guys, they are not rocket scientists, but they think they are the elite of all the elites on planet earth, they are the mean cousins of dunning kruger.

    I am a programmer myself, but I am not an incel, after attending to a lot of conferences, I can clearly state that, if you see a mean guy on SO, read his profile – he’ll have a cat picture, he will stress how geeky he is and how many languages he can speak, or in how many languages he can “code”, he is probably an incel.

    SO is full of Supreme Gentlemans. They should change their name to Supreme Gentleman Incel Club.

  5. Crect Answr

    SO should have, in addition to normal reputation, an asshole reputation score for each user.
    Next to a given comment or answer provided by a user, there should be an “This guy’s an asshole” button that a reader can press. This increases that users asshole rep.

    Users who accumulate a noticably-higher-than-average asshole rep should have everything they write prepended with some bright colorful message to the effect of “I’m an asshole, so read on with caution.” The asshole rep could be gradually reduced if the user makes comments or answers that *don’t* incur very many asshole button presses.

    • Exactly same thing happened to me. I’m not a total beginner to python, but I asked a question that gave tons of information and debug, all my code (and the bits of code I want them to inspect), a link to a repl.it, and perfect grammar and a clear question, yet I got a whole lecture on how to create a minimal reproducible example. Then, they decided to close the question!

  6. Clare Smith

    Thanks so much for writing this and for sharing your experiences. I had very bad experiences in 2015 with Stack Overflow and had not been back since. A month ago I posted a question for the first time in 5 years and got a very helpful answer. I had a small error in my python code that the contributor caught quickly. No one complained about my question. Today, I posted another question asking if an error in my code might be due to deprecation (a common problem with the merry-go-round of python versions, but one that is not always easily detected). I was then told that I have “asked two questions recently, some of which have not been received very well by the community… and that the reception [my] questions have received might ultimately block [my] account from asking questions entirely.” If that were not enough, the message suggested “I take a break…and a breather”. Is Stack Overflow seriously telling me to take a deep breath!!!?? That is so unbelievably patronizing that my face actually burned with anger when I read it. I am a college professor and would never treat my students this way (or any other human being). Please know that I don’t mind at all if a question goes unanswered. I recognize people might not want to take the time or might even see a question as not important, but scolding people for asking a question sickens me. I have a great job, am an expert SAS programmer and am quite proficient at R. I learn quickly and will sort out the issue I have having with python. My anger is not about me, It is about the age old lack of equity and inclusion in the analytics workforce and the proud role in this moral failure that Stack Overflow and communities like it continue to play.

    • Welcome to the modern internet. There’s topics about it and pieces of it has been sold to the UN and China back in 2010 thru 2015. It’s been slowly building up and the dam is ready to burst! If we get the wrong President in 2021 we will have Stack Overflow on steroids IRL. China already has it which is called social credit system.

  7. Clare Smith

    Hilariously sad. I decided to see if there might be a forum to provide constructive feedback to Stack Overflow about the experience that I just shared. Turns out an SO community blog post was written to detail the problems in hopes of finding solutions. https://stackoverflow.blog/2018/04/26/stack-overflow-isnt-very-welcoming-its-time-for-that-to-change/. When you click on the feedback link at the end of the piece, you are taken to a page that says “Stack Overflow Inclusion Project – Thanks for your interest, but we’re not accepting responses.” That says it all!

  8. Kyle Hill

    Programmers in general are jerks thinking because they can string a bunch of C++ stuff they are better then users and look down on you. It’s mostly the children of the 60s hippies and dope smokers that wrecked their brains and now it isn’t a matter of what they know but what they know isn’t so!

    • I have yet to have a pleasant response from posting a question on stackoverflow. I have had very nice experiences on Quora. I think the people who have enough credits to moderate on stackoverflow, need to spend all their time on stackoverflow – which self selects for a bunch of unbalanced people.

      One of the biggest problem I see with stackoverflow is the inability to provide feedback or petition problematic moderators – there is no recourse for people who don’t answer _lots_ of questions on the platform. This not only makes the platform frustrating to use but deprives stackoverflow management from metrics that might help them make the platform better.

      Stackoverflow management is very slow to improve their platform which, admittedly, they don’t have a lot of need to since so many people use it. I’d love to see a competitor scrape their site usability and features and build something more humane.

  9. It only takes 30 seconds for your question to get downvoted. SO has saved me many times but I have never experienced a good answer before some snob has either downvoted it or said some dumb shit. I have been a programmer for like 6 years and I have a great job but even I don’t know how to articulate the questions for the answers I need sometimes. SO basically assumes you are a professional, will post professional code, and will have a precise question to be answered. However, 80% of the times it just is not that simple. They actively try to squander people who have lives outside of coding.

  10. There is a reason for its quality content, dumb questions and speculative answers are not tolerated. Yeah, I am one of those who spend my points downvoting people but that is what makes the community hight quality of questions and answers if you go to Reddit or Quora you will see ignorant people misleading each other as if they knew what they talk about accepting nonsense as the correct answer. There is a reason Stackoverflow is the source to go, and it is its curated content.

  11. @rolo You are a perfect example of the sort of egotistical jerk that makes SO such a toxic and useless place. You’re too busy sniffing your own farts to realize that you are part of the problem.

    • Not just part of the problem, they ARE the problem. I understand if the person has terrible grammar that is not understandable, and the question doesn’t make sense, but if it’s just a beginner asking a question you find dumb, just help them! Or don’t if you don’t want to, but don’t close it or downvote it.

  12. I posted on stackoverflow a few times over the years – just to return some easy help for others. I’ve tried to post questions recently and been downvoted by an @rolo type stackoverflowego with no feed back given and the easiest way out was to delete my posts…what a waste of time.

  13. It’s up to you to stand to the aholes. If you see a legitimate question that was downvoted, you should upvote it. Don’t let the stackoverflow aholes get away with it.

  14. Andrew

    I just asked a question about vim after three hours of research and multiple screenshots showing what I had done. Yet after six years of trying to make high-quality questions and extensive research, I barely have 41 reputation and can’t comment on other posts I do know the answer to.

    What we need to do is penalize higher-ranking people who downvote more often than they upvote while not leaving comments.

    If I’m a new user who doesn’t know how to solve a problem, how can I ask if I’m expected to have a master’s degree in computer science to ask questions?

  15. This is why i hate being a software developer. Asked a question on how to write some firebase programme, only to get hated on instead of producing the solution”Learn to use google and we are not a tutorial writing service”more like “IDK the fuckin answer to it and fuck off pls”. A bunch of egotistical circle jerks who refuse to help other newbies learn html/javascript/anything. It’s kinda pathetic because these are the neckbeards who spend years on the computer and barely know how to interact with other people in real life, earning that meagre shitty monthly pay of a few thousands(3k-6k).

  16. James

    I am struggling on creating a programme that allows me to retrieve data automatically from SQLite. I posted my question,follow the guidelines and whatnot as well as state what am i supposed to do. I checked my question the day before, only to get replies that said” go google it yourself or something”.I was shocked because i thought the community would helped out but instead they choose to ignore my queries.I ended up asking my one of my classmates how to do it and he actually did it without any hesistation. I had to submit the project by yesterday and i was desperate for help.

    In conclusion, Stack Overflow is just a bunch of egotistical software nerds who are stuck working at a mediocre job that are no better than reddit karma whores/mods who run subs. You can literally get downvoted or have your question removed by those of “higher authority” aka those who have alot of reputation by simply answering those questions that are deem worthy. Do not post no matter what but only visit it and try searching up relevant answers to it.

    What a waste of time and effort.

  17. Garlic Jr.

    I think a lot of people forget that from the beginning, Stackoverflow was intended for Q/A for developers, by developers. “Newbies” were never really the target audience, and they still aren’t. The site’s requirements for a “good question” simply cannot be met by someone who doesn’t have a substantial amount of experience fiddling around with code, usually a few years or so.

    Likewise, the people who answer the questions on this site have (rightfully) come to expect that the people who ask questions are part of this target audience. Now picture this, imagine “gee, I wanna see some interesting programming questions. Maybe I can even help answer them!” But when you go to Stackoverflow, instead of interesting questions, you see dozens of odd questions in the queue. Upon closer inspection, these questions are typical of newbies who’ve never taken a course in programming, whether via university, self-taught, YouTube, or otherwise. “Wow, don’t these guys have a textbook to read? Oh wait, this is specific to this language. I know this language! But didn’t they read the tutorials? Even if they hated the official tutorials, there’s lots of good references at the top of their favorite search engine. Better references than Stackoverflow! Why are they even here?” Then you look closer, and maybe it’s related to a bug you encountered once, or to some programming language design choice you read about once, etc., and you can comment on it. Or maybe, the documentation and the search engines AREN’T performing so well, in which case a simple link and summary might suffice. Or maybe not, and it really IS just a newb question, in which case you just move on to the next question. You are the target audience, after all, not these newbies.

    Now, imagine this happens EVERY time you want to go through questions. Dozens…oh wait, site traffic jumped…now HUNDREDS of weak questions that don’t meet the requirements for the site, and you have to sift through all of these to get to the good stuff.

    And then you remember, “Wait, I’m answering questions for fun. And I literally power this site! There would be no Stackoverflow if I didn’t answer questions. And I do this for free! Why am I putting up with these people who not only can’t follow the site rules, but probably aren’t even the target audience?” The frustration can pile up very quickly. And then, instead of ignoring the less fun questions, you might lash out at the unsuspecting questioner, because you’re tired of their kind. Why won’t they just leave you alone and let you have the nice question-answering experience you had back in 2014/2012/whenever?

    Of course, lashing out and being rude to newbies isn’t rational. But it doesn’t have to be. That said, I find it odd that people who are admittedly not the target audience for the site, such as many of those seen in the comments here, feel they’re entitled to the (free) labor of hard-working answerers, without considering the latter’s feelings on the matter, without considering why the latter are even answering questions in the first place, and without considering the impact that asking a question — without first exhausting other readily available resources such as tutorials, documentation, or Google — without considering the impact that such questions have on the answerers’ experience. In addition, they don’t consider how simply TAKING THE TIME to point out how the question is malformed, or incomplete, or not concise enough to meet community standards, diminishes the answerers’ experience.

    After all, anyone can ask questions, regardless of quality, but not everyone can provide answers, and so the answerers are ultimately what power Stackoverflow’s Q/A platform. Expecting questions to meet community standards is their privilege. While what constitutes “well thought-out” and “concise” depends on the community, and the rules of the platform, Stackoverflow has made it quite clear what their expectations are in this respect.

    So when they lash out at you for asking a question that is somehow deficient, keep in mind they are not lashing at you personally, but rather lashing out at your demographic, a certain kind of questioner, which the older answerers have become fed up with.

    I repeat: don’t take it personally.