My Two Biggest Issues with StackOverflow

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I don’t really participate on StackOverflow. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve asked a couple of questions and I’ve answered a couple, too, but by and large, I don’t go there.

At first I thought it was because of the Fastest Gun in the West problem. I like to take my time and give nice, thorough, sometimes lengthy, but always complete answers. I like that because it serves as a better reference for the future - it doesn’t just answer the question for that one person, it answers the question with context for the future person asking. And that’s still something I take issue with because, contrary to the current top answer on that problem, I don’t believe people read through every answer to the question. I don’t believe there’s a “long game.” I don’t believe the asker of the question comes back to their questions to review any new, more complete answers and switch what they mark as the “official answer.” I don’t believe people come in and upvote more complete/correct answers. We already know people don’t up-or-down-vote questions.

But I got thinking… and while the Fastest Gun thing does irritate me, that’s not really the reason I don’t often visit StackOverflow. The real reasons, I think, are:

1. A high percentage of the questions could be answered with a trivial effort on Google.

I can’t tell you how many questions I see fly past that are so simple, so “RTFM,” that anyone worth their salt couldn’t have just hit Google, typed the question in there, and got the actual documentation - with samples - to answer the question. So many questions could be answered with a “Let Me Google That For You” (or, if you prefer, the Bing equivalent) link that… I don’t even want to think about it. Cats and dogs living together - mass hysteria.

The reason this bugs me is that it really throws off the signal-to-noise ratio of questions on the site. It also, in my opinion, just serves to inflate the reputation of the Fastest Gun answerers - sit and search for trivial questions all day, answer, get points. The latter issue of reputation is sort of a self-solving issue since I’m not too concerned with reputation or answering trivial questions, but the signal-to-noise thing really is annoying.

2. People can not figure out how to ask a question.

There’s a whole FAQ on this even. It’s not that hard, but it kills me that people just can’t figure it out. Titles of questions like “Problem with ASP.NET” or “Migrating to MVC3.” Really? Both of those sound amazingly totally unlike questions. Even if you phrased the titles as questions (“How do I fix a problem with ASP.NET?”) they’re still too broad, so you have to go in and read them to figure them out. Once you’re in there, it’s one of three things:

  • A “plz send me the codez” question that somehow never gets moderated away, regardless of flagging, etc.
  • Something so broad that you should send them an Amazon gift card so they can buy some books and read up.
  • Very specific to a problem in their system, and while they describe the error that’s happening they don’t provide any context, code, stack trace, or additional data that would possibly be needed to assist them.

I’m not sure how to solve it.

I sort of thought StackOverflow (and the whole StackExchange thing) was supposed to be sort of self-moderating, but I feel like maybe they err on the side of less actual moderation just so they can build content. That’s great from a business model perspective because more content generally equates to more visitors. On the other hand, quantity is not the same as quality, and these two issues so drastically reduce the quality of what’s there that it’s hard for me to value the site as a resource. I can’t be alone here. This makes me wonder if I’m even the target audience for StackOverflow. Maybe I’m not. I guess I’ll just keep checking in to see if it gets better.

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