Do trolls run the show at Stack Overflow?

Natali Vlatko
Troll image via Shutterstock

Everyone’s favourite Q&A site has been slowly losing dedicated members thanks to its toxic moderator behaviour, over-embellished points system and systematic hatred for newbies. John Slegers lays it down.

IT blogger John Slegers has a lot to say about Stack Overflow and the number of ‘overprivileged trolls’ amongst the community active there. His recent article and search for a better alternative has ignited debate amongst the Reddit community in particular, as to whether Stack Overflow is just full of nasty people trying to farm reputation points.

For the uninitiated, Stack Overflow is the most recognised Q&A site for programmers that operates with the help of community moderators. It exists as part of the Stack Exchange network and has somewhat strict protocol for its Q&A framework.

Slegers’ main argument against the decline of Stack Overflow revolves around the reign of what he calls ‘overzealous trolls’ who have control over the moderating process. A very similar sentiment is documented by Michael T. Richter, who stated that he no longer uses Stack Overflow thanks to its poor pedagogy, poor reward system and poor community.

There are a number of reasons why I stopped contributing to StackOverflow. I am disquieted by its poor pedagogical value, I think its scoring system is fundamentally broken and rewards the wrong things, and I think its community lacks maturity even while it becomes more and more pointlessly authoritarian.

A lot of Redditors feel the same, with the most upvoted comment on the thread also somewhat telling:

While Stack Overflow moderators are supposed to follow precise guidelines, there is also a larger group of ‘privileged users’ who have the power to edit, close and delete questions. This power quickly goes to their heads according to Slegers:

Of those thousands of privileged users, many rule their virtual fiefdoms like the pettiest of Führers, imposing very arbitrary and poorly documented rules on their unsuspecting serfs, throwing fire and brimstone on whomever acts in a way incompatible with their irrational, ignorant notions of what qualifies as a good question / answer.

If we return to the Reddit comment above, the real consequence can be seen in the fear that users feel by posting questions in the first place, which is supposed to be the whole point of the site. Slegers paints a picture of Stack Overflow regulars existing in their own entitled bubble, where noob questions are quite often frowned upon and new users are exposed to “a sense of hostility”.

Question quality is also an issue for Slegers, which has been brought up on Reddit concerning its /r/learnprogramming sub-reddit. In an effort to weasel out ‘homework’ questions, posts are downvoted and moderated out, however the strict Stack Exchange question criteria has also been criticised:

  • Closed more than 9 days ago
  • Not closed as a duplicate
  • Score <= 0
  • Not locked
  • No answers with a score > 0
  • No accepted answer
  • No pending reopen votes
  • No edits in the past 9 days

The problem with this criteria is that “many good questions not only get closed before anyone is able to respond, but that many of them end up vanishing into oblivion for eternity after merely 9 days”. Slegers is eager to find alternatives to a website that he believes has turned into a hotbed for trolling and plain petty authoritarianism.

Issues with Stack Overflow have also been highlighted to somewhat stem from the creators themselves, with Redditor m1m stating:

To be honest, I’m not surprised that stack overflow has gone this route. You guys used to read spolskys blog I’m sure. He always came off as an elitist exclusionary asshole. Smart? Definitely. Asshole? Yep. Classic “holier than thou” software engineer.

While that comment has since been deleted, it also highlights another point about moderator behaviour, saying that “no one is disputing the functionality of the site. We’re discussing the fact that it has a lot of really mean people”.

So what’s the alternative? If trolls really rule the roost on Stack Overflow, do newer programmers just go elsewhere? Slegers’ suggestion of the Quora alternative comes with the caveat that the Q&A site has the same types of problems that Stack Overflow does: bad quality control, unexplained deletions and anonymous powers to edit.

Mailing lists have been suggested as a way of ensuring anonymous trolling behaviour is somewhat stamped out, but the sheer volume of Stack Overflow’s framework could never be supported by a mailing list system. That also means the potential for quality questions/answers is lower, but so too is the possibility of poor behaviour.

What else can be offered as an alternative? Do you agree with Sleglers’ and Richter’s conclusions about Stack Overflow? Let us know in the comments below.

Natali Vlatko
An Australian who calls Berlin home, via a two year love affair with Singapore. Natali was an Editorial Assistant for (S&S Media Group).

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2 years ago

Coming from someone who has worked on drilling rigs, as well as service rigs, I’ve had my fair share of dealings with assholes. I’m used to it, the difference between those assholes and these SO/SE assholes is that the assholes on the rigs were being assholes in a way that was productive, where as the assholes of SO/SE are just trying to flex their digital muscles. Egotism plain and simple.