Simon Palmer’s blog

November 6, 2008

Stack underflow

Filed under: stackoverflow — simonpalmer @ 12:20 pm

Ho hum.  I have lost my initial enthusiasm for Stackoverflow.  I think there are several reasons why:

  1. I am just tired of it
  2. I am sick of reading the same questions posted over and over again
  3. The preponderance of C# programmers asking basic questions is at once demoralisaing and uninteresting
  4. The broader programming population is involved which means that the 99% of programmers (who can’t code their way out of a paper bag) are using it as a first resort rather than a last resort.
  5. Stupid lazy kids are posting their homework questions.
  6. I no longer care about my reputation
  7. The community approach to censure afforded by earnt reputation sounds great, but is really just an absence of policy which leads to capricious and incoherent behaviour by anyone with sufficient reputation to do it.

The conclusion I have come to is that it has settled into a place where two types of questions get asked, i) basic ones by people who are not very good and that they should already know the answer to and ii) extremely niche technical questions that only one other person in the world can answer.

The shine has worn off answering the first type, and often it is clear that the person asking has not even bothered reading a book or googling before they jump in, let alone asked a colleague or figured it out themselves.  For the latter there are probably better forums inhabited by domain experts who will give you answers that may at least stem from some technical experience.

Another thing that has bothered me is the inability to discuss anything.  The format is pretty didactic.  You ask a question, a bunch of people give you answers.  In reality you want more of a dialectic and discussion.  I think that regular topic-oriented message boards do a better job.

So I am drifting back to flexcoders and the numpy and scipy boards.  Maybe I am just paying the price for not developing everything I do using Microsoft technologies (in fact not developing *anything* using Microsoft technologies), but my Stack underfloweth.

The technical forums I mention have been doing this for some time and the difference that Stackoverflow brings is twofold, first the range of topics is much broader; generally a discussion forum is specific to a technology.  Secondly they have brought gameplay into answering questions with the reputation voting.  This second one is the innovation.

In spite of my waning enthusiasm it does bring one more very positive thought to mind.  The community question and answer phenomenon on the web is very powerful and it is amazing how many people will willingly and freely share their expertise.  I predict an increasing number of question and answer sites such as Stackoverflow will appear and more and more sites will start to include the Q&A and community based reputation voting approach.

For it to work well (and in spite of my gripes, Stackoverflow does work well) I think that the subject area has to be tight enough that there is a reasonably well defined boundary of expertise (general q&a sites will fail, look at LinkedIn, where the questions section is rubbish), but general enough that there is a large body of people who can contribute, and the people involved need to spend a lot of time in front of computers.  I think this limits the possible scope of q&a, but that’s probably a good thing. I can imagine it working for a  younger generation of professionals like accountants and tax specialists.

Anyway, for now I am going to ask a few pointed questions and see how quickly I can reduce my reputation back to zero.

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