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Lost in Vim: One million developers trapped in the text-editor closet

Jane Elizabeth
© Shutterstock / noppawan09

Twenty-five years and a million trapped users later, Vim remains popular with developers despite its tendency to trap the unwary.

The textual editor Vim has hit a number of milestones. Vim celebrates its 25th anniversary later this year, a remarkable feat of longevity in a field known for declaring tech obsolete every eighteen months. The open-source text-editor software has continued to remain popular with developers. Stack Overflow ranked it as the third most popular text editor in 2015 and the fourth most popular dev environment in 2016. Vim has a lot to be proud of.

Vim has also just claimed its millionth victim.

Lost in Vim

Five years ago, user jclancy plaintively asked,


They were merely the first.

Vim’s labyrinthine design has become something of a running gag among developers. To be fair, Vim is a bit tricky to escape if you don’t spend a lot of time using it.

“I think there are two reasons it’s easy to forget how to exit Vim: developers are often dropped into Vim from a git command or another situation where they didn’t expect to be, and they run into it infrequently enough to forget how they solved it last time,” said David Robinson of Stack Overflow.

Much like Theseus, developers need a bit of help to escape this labyrinth. According to Robinson, How to exit the Vim editor makes up about .005% of question traffic to Stack Overflow. That roughly translates to one out of every 20,000 visits to the site.

“There are about 80 people per hour that need help getting out of Vim,” Robinson stated.

Vim has continued to trap developers at a relatively steady rate. Stack Overflow tracked the number of visits this question received and the trend is pretty stable.


Like Theseus without the string

But who gets stuck in Vim? That required a bit of sleuthing.

In order to determine who was using the software and who was actually stuck, Robinson calculated the “Exit Vim / Total Vim” percentage for each user across their main programming technology. This was determined by looking at what Stack Overflow tag they visited most often. (To prevent rubberneckers like myself from corrupting the data, they only looked at registered viewers with at least 100 visits to the site.)

Looking at this graph, it’s pretty clear that developers most likely to be trapped in Vim are front-end developers who use JQuery, CSS, and AngularJS. Microsoft developers (C# and SQL Server) follow behind closely, and then mobile developers for both Android and iOS.

“These developers usually work with an IDE like Visual Studio, Eclipse, Xcode, etc, rather than a plain text editor,” writes Robinson.  “So it makes sense that they’re relatively more likely to get “stuck” in Vim rather than to open it intentionally.”

C, C++, Python, and Ruby developers were most likely to escape from its clutches.

Robinson wasn’t surprised. Those languages are often used with a plain text editor and not an IDE. So these developers are experienced enough and don’t need to Google to find the exit sign.

In the meanwhile, Vim continues to trap the unwary. However, Stack Overflow will always be waiting with a helping hand and some string to guide developers out of the labyrinth.

Jane Elizabeth
Jane Elizabeth is an assistant editor for

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