How can I make StackOverflow useful again?
August 12, 2012 11:36 AM   Subscribe

StackOverflow used to be my favorite resource for coding questions, but in the last few months it's usefulness has dramatically decreased, and I'm wondering if its just me or are others having the same issue. More importantly are there any tips or hints that will help restore its usefulness as a tool?

I'm leaving this a little vague because I'm mainly interested in whether others have seen a decline in SO usefulness, and if so have they developed any techniques for improving the signal to noise ratio when using SO. Is it even possible that a better-than SO site is lurking out there?

Bonus question: Are there any SO Meta success stories of late? Where a particular SO Meta question seemed to push the SO site more towards usefulness that might give me clues or insight in getting the most of of SO.

It's also possible that the issues I'm seeing are language specific rather than SO scale based. I found SO tremendously helpful with Ruby, Javascript, Coffeescript and Node.js issues and questions, but my luck with Java and Android is really putting me off the site.
posted by puppysocket to Computers & Internet (16 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
If it's tone, trigger-happy question closing and/or insularity bothering you, it's not just you (and they're trying to do something about it). Closed questions are the ones driving me up the wall - I find exactly my question, but it's been closed, so not only are there no useful answers already, I know there's no point in asking it myself, whether I agree with the reasons for closure or not.

That aside, I find the body of existing answers useful still, but I have the dubious advantage of working mostly in slightly outdated languages. FWIW, searching from Google tends to get me better results than searching from within Stack Overflow itself.

I can't comment on your SO Meta question, sorry; and I haven't found a real alternative to SO either - though some interesting stuff does turn up right here from time to time.
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 12:00 PM on August 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

I don't use SO Meta, so I can't really comment there. However, I have not found SO to be of diminished usefulness. You do need to ask your questions in the correct manner, but I generally agree with closures that I see in the tags I'm active in. If you have specific examples of closed questions, I'd love to see them. I do frequently vote to re-open when appropriate.
posted by jeffamaphone at 12:14 PM on August 12, 2012

Long time SO contributor here (top .5% rep). The homework and "Write this app for me ASAP" questions bother me, but I like that people are now more frequently responding with "What have you tried?", which helps communicate the site's mission more clearly.

It might be section-specific. The iOS section seems particularly afflicted with this. I wonder if there are a lot of fly-by-night software companies in India, whose employees think SO is where they can scam free programming for their iPhone apps.

Questions aside, finding old answers or questions is painful (for me). Like Metafilter favorites, unless I bookmark something separately, I'll never find it again if I use SO's system.

Without knowing more about what bothers you about SO, I couldn't really suggest ways to improve it for you, so perhaps if you can be a bit more specific about the issues you have that might help. I don't really participate on Meta, not interested in the politics, but I definitely have concerns about the programming site.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 12:19 PM on August 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

SO's usefulness varies a lot between tags. Tags like Java that have a lot of "Do my homework now!" questions have driven away the experts, and you now get a lot of semi-clueless leading the clueless in the answers. The more obscure tags are still popular with real experts. Such is entropy. Sigh.
posted by monotreme at 12:21 PM on August 12, 2012 [2 favorites]

I am of the same mind as ManyLeggedCreature in that closed questions are one of the things that is putting me off SO.

An example I ran into today is from a Java newbie, making a newbie mistake resulting in the solution to his problem and the actual question being in slightly different domains.
There are three reasons I find the closing of this question frustrating.
1) How is the question "too localized". I made the same newbie mistake this guy did when I first was messing around with java coming from more dynamic languages.
2) No one answered the top line question, nor was any question linked that addressed the top-line question.
3) It's the top Google result for "java change array size at runtime"

The SO I used to love was the one where someone would come into this kind of question and says something like: I assume you know you can't create an Array with dynamic size in Java, but here's some techniques that get you closer (goes on to discuss creating a bigger array than needed vs creating multiple sized arrays, etc).

Also, because the question is closed, I can't come back and update it with any solutions I may have found. Which is what I try to do with SO, if I find a question that I feel hasn't fully addressed the asker's problem, I'll update it with information I may have. Of course, the question is likely months or years old, so even though I get real karma, I very rarely get any SO karma for it.
posted by puppysocket at 1:38 PM on August 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm don't really understand the whole SO mores, but from an outside perspective...

If you look at the question as asked and answered, I don't see a problem with closing it. The OP understands that to resize an array in Java you have to copy it; that's part of his sample code. He was doing things right except he ignored a return value. Once he figure that out (or it was pointed out to him) the question lost its raison d'etre.

Yes, a long treatise on alternate data structures, performance time w/r/t inserts and extensions, etc might be helpful to future searchers. But SO couldn't have known at the time that this particular question would be a top google search result. And a longer treatise might not have been helpful to the OP (perhaps some other design requirement mandates arrays in this form).
posted by sbutler at 2:11 PM on August 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

I work with Google App Engine, which has shifted most of its support community to SO. This results in questions that don't belong on SO going there, things about extremely obscure platform bugs, unexpected performance profiles, and I swear I've seen a question complaining about downtime.

This is just an example - I've bumped into many questions from various tech platforms that are not of the "how do I best do X in environment Y" variety, which I think is what SO is best at - but rather of the "if you do x, y, and z, wait 3 minutes, and do a little dance - there's a segfault." I think SO is in this way a victim of its own success - every little mailing-list-based community is moving to SO when it should probably stick to the mailing list.
posted by tempythethird at 2:25 PM on August 12, 2012

The problems I've been noticing with SO are less about closures, and more about gamification. Some people really like racking up their SO reputation points as fast as possible, so I'm seeing more and more "answers" that don't really answer the question posed, and read like they may have been copy-pasted from a FAQ.
posted by vasi at 4:36 PM on August 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

I suspect part of it is the Eternal September effect. In addition there has been a general influx of new/amateur users who are trying to build up rep in order to beef up a programming resume. (I've seen a growing number of job postings requiring a Github repository of sample source code and a StackOverflow account to show your aptitude and attitude.)

And I suspect it may be a victim of its own success by having more content than it can manage successfully. The past several weeks I've been working in a language I'm less than familiar with (also Java, so there's correlation there...) and found quite often that a search of StackOverflow where someone has asked my question it has often been closed as either a duplicate or for not being appropriate for the SO format for whatever reason.

I don't have a problem with closing them, but if they're dupes SO should a) hide them from search engines so I can find the original easier. b) Obviously direct the user from the dupe to the original. (SO might do this but I've never figured it out. They only seem to link the user who posted the original.) And c) Let dupes be posted if it's been at least a year from the original. Few people keep their answers up-to-date, and the answer to (for example) a node.js question today will have dramatically different answers than they did a year ago.

I've also run across a few posts with several hundred upvotes which have been closed as not appropriate for the SO format. Comments indicated while it's a perfectly good topic it should be a SO wiki post, but the method for that to happen is awkward and convoluted, and I've never had a search direct me to a SO Wiki post (as far as I know).
posted by Ookseer at 4:59 PM on August 12, 2012 [2 favorites]

I used to enjoy answering Java questions. More recently, may of them seem to be variations on the user being confused, a big block of code (sometimes many screenfuls, often badly formatted) and a vague question at the end, something like "this doesn't work, why not?"

I'm not interested in answering questions like that for free. I'm not even very interested in getting paid to answer questions like that. A moderately competent developer should be able to isolate their problem into a dozen or less lines of code, write a clear summary of the issue, and pose a clear question.

I don't think I've ever asked a Java question, but I do see answers pop up to well-formed questions.
posted by b1tr0t at 5:38 PM on August 12, 2012 [2 favorites]

Thanks all, each of your answers added some clarity. I marked the best answers as the ones that helped illuminate the culture and subtleties of SO. I'll cut SO some slack given the stresses of too much success they're having to deal with.
posted by puppysocket at 7:27 AM on August 13, 2012

Just a note, puppysocket -- your question's appreciated, and I'll share what everyone has said here with the SO team (I'm on the board).
posted by anildash at 9:06 AM on August 13, 2012

For me, Stack Overflow is still incredibly useful. I follow the r, emacs, bash, and python tags and most of the questions and answers are good.

Occasionally someone will post a question where they haven't appeared to even break down the problem to something that might be solvable by someone else (like b1tr0t's example). I usually downvote these and sometimes vote to close them too. In my experience, people often clean up their act when this happens. If a question just has formatting or English problems then I will often edit it myself.

I feel like quality answers and and questions is one of the important things that make Stack Overflow the great resource that it is, and I'm pretty wary of any changes that will lead to a decrease in question quality. Debugging a big block of code isn't going to help anyone other than the original poster.
posted by grouse at 10:02 AM on August 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

I just wanted to mention that I agree questioner's need to put effort into their question. Question's that basically throw up a wall of code and say why won't this work, or questions that say I'm trying to do X and its not working but post no code are rightfully downvoted and closed.

Based on feedback here, I've gone through and evaluated how I'm using the site a bit more and how that might be coloring my view. I rarely run into problems using the site directly, it seems it might be some artifact of Google and/or my search queries. Also, as someone pointed out there does seem to be a lot more noise (and hence less tolerance) in certain spaces (e.g., the Android/Java space). Couple that with low quality questions being indexed fairly high in Google and that might explain the seeming reduction in usefulness.
posted by puppysocket at 12:55 PM on August 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

anildash - one of the reasons I don't post many questions to SO is that I can usually find an answer in the existing questions.

Some mechanism for re-opening closed questions that later become relevant may be a good idea. Also, some mechanism for marking obsolete answers as deprecated would be good. There are a lot of answers about how to use ancient Facebook APIs that are no longer supported by Facebook, for example.
posted by b1tr0t at 1:08 PM on August 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

One other thing I do that helps with the noise is to aggressively ignore tags I don't care about. Here's my list of ignored tags: django php java matlab objective-c .net flash wpf iphone ruby* ios* c#* groovy wordpress asp* *hibernate* xcode* cocoa* plone* vim* eclipse* sql-server* visual-studio* mongo* mootools* scala* redis* sharepoint* mono vb* ant* facebook* windows-phone* spring actionscript* flex* android* jboss* joomla* seo *qt* delphi* haskell* nginx* lucene* opencv* jqgrid*

Probably not a coincidence that many of the tags complained about are on this list.
posted by grouse at 2:16 PM on August 13, 2012

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