Every year, Stack Overflow conducts a survey of developers – and every year, those developers tell Stack Overflow the site is unfriendly. There are efforts to improve things, but they’re not working. Should Stack model itself after Facebook to fix the problem?
Facebook recently began testing a program where likes were hidden from view. Across Instagram and Facebook proper, the company is testing whether hiding the number of likes creates a “less pressurized environment.” The company says “we want your followers to focus on what you share, not how many likes your posts get.”
In a critique of Facebook from 2017, Sean Parker says likes are a “social validation feedback loop,” adding “it’s exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with because you’re exploiting vulnerability in human psychology.” (It’s also important to note Parker is an early investor in Facebook, but had no direct hand in creating it.)
In an article from 2013, Psychology Today explains not getting likes via social media can elicit the same feeling of rejection as if it were real-life:
The kinds of rejections we experience on social media can vary in their severity, just as they do offline. And just as in ‘real life’ even relatively minor rejections (such as when friends fail to ‘like’ or to ‘retweet’ our posts) can really sting. One of the most common forms of rejections online occur when our invitations to connect with friends or colleagues on LinkedIn or Facebook are met with silence, or when someone we know well doesn’t follow us back on Twitter. Our feelings can be extremely hurt in such situations. Indeed, we often experience any lack of reciprocity on social media as a kind of shunning. Shunning is such a painful form of ostracism that historically, it was used as a vehicle of severe social punishment (e.g., the Scarlet Letter).
Let’s get back to Stack Overflow. In its 2019 Developer Survey, 73 percent of users responded the site was “just as welcoming” as last year. When asked what they would fix about the site, one of the most popular responses was fixing the “community culture.” In April, we wrote “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.”
And what’s Stack Overflow’s answer to all this? You guessed it: a code of conduct. Instead of saying “you could Google this in five seconds,” Stack Overflow says a better response would be “If you Google it, you’ll find tutorials that can explain it much better than we can in an answer here.”
In a blog post, technologist Martin Tournoij points out the community on Stack Overflow is not only mean, they’re vicious. He points to a simple – but good – question about listing Go packages. It was downvoted four times, while a similar question from 2015 was upvoted 24 times. “I have no idea why this is downvoted at all, much less to -4,” writes Tournoji. “I’m also wondering what went through the head of the person who saw the question at a score of -3 and just had to add their own downvote.”
Stack Overflow knows there’s a problem. In April 2018 it addressed the various issues with its community, and made plenty of excuses – but offered no solution beyond asking people to be better to one another. It’s the same thing all social platforms ask of us, and it’s clear that’s not the solution.
Without change from users, the only real solution is to change the platform. Like Facebook, it’s past time Stack Overflow do just that. It doesn’t have to eliminate up or down votes from its ranking algorithm, but hiding them from view would eliminate the piling-on scenario Tournoji highlights.
(I don’t know about you, but I’ve come across plenty of Stack Overflow queries that were downvoted – but highly relevant and useful. I resisted clicking them because downvotes feel like digital currency; I assumed the content was bad because it had been “reviewed” by others, but that wasn’t always the case.)
Eliminating likes from public view isn’t a silver-bullet solution, but it would be a big step toward actually fixing a major issue with the Stack Overflow community.