A Comment from StackOverflow

Thoughts on the responsibilities of a top user on StackOverflow after a comment from another user.

Posted in Rants on December 11, 2013

The other day I answered a question on StackOverflow. It asked about combining two if statements. I provided a quick, simple answer. A few hours later I received the following comment from tereško.

Awesome answer. This is exactly the level of complexity and depth, that one would expect from 30k+ user.

tereško’s sarcasm reads pretty thick. At first, it pissed me off. But then I got to thinking… What was wrong with my answer? With a reputation over 30k, must I always provide a complex and deep answer?

The short answer, no.

tereško clearly would not approve of that answer. Allow me to provide more depth.

I could make the whole the answer should match the level of depth of the question argument. Do I need to explain the internals of a language parser when someone’s missing a semi-colon? Some developers pride themselves on knowing such complexities. I consider it an unnecessary detail. To each their own. Point being the right level of complexity and depth is too subjective.

Instead of looking at a specific answer, we need to look at the process of answering. StackOverflow, at the end of the day, is a game. The objective of the game is simple - provide the answer. How is the answer determined? Well it’s actually determined two ways - by the author of the question and by the community.

Now if there’s one thing I have learned earning my 30k+ reputation, these aren’t always the same. There are plenty of questions where an author accepted an answer the community did not find the best and vice-versa. In addition, I have seen plenty of one-line fixes beat complex and deep answers.

While the game is simple, how users play differs. The basic strategies I have noticed is providing the first right answer or a more thorough answer. In this case, I provided the first right answer. It would seem tereško plays the game only by providing a more thorough answer.

So what’s the big deal? After all, it’s just a game. Well there are two things I don’t like about tereško’s comment.

First, 30k+ users providing only complex and deep answers is not a universal maxim. If it were, StackOverflow would not receive as many answers from its top users. While I recognize and advocate improving the quality of answers, this is not the way.

Second, and more importantly, it’s trolling. tereško campaigned to close the question (a topic for another day) and picked at answers. He did so through ridicule and sarcasm. Neither have a place on StackOverflow. While my answer may have lacked complexity and depth, it was nonetheless helpful. tereško’s contributions helped no one.

I love StackOverflow. I love playing the game. But I want to see good sportsmanship. StackOverflow feels more negative lately. I see more questions closed and elitist behavior. Above all else, StackOverflow should be helpful.

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