Overprivileged trolls at Stack Overflow

It seems Stack Overflow has gone full Reddit in my absence:

No[t] only is Stack Overflow plagued by overzealous trolls, but it is a community where the trolls are actually in charge.

— The Decline of Stack Overflow

That article rings kinda true from my recollection of occasional recent visits.

SO was one of the first sites to embrace “gamification” whole-hog: not just karma or achievements, but actually granting new privileges based on level-gain. I guess in retrospect it seems obvious that if you make an app feel like a game, some people with time on their hands will treat it as nothing more than one. This is true even on sites where karma has no value, like Reddit; let alone sites where your rep could very well get you a job.




  1. This is so true. I blogged about one such experience here: http://6ftdan.com/allyourdev/2015/04/16/undefining-a-css-attribute-and-rant/ There is one particular user who will instantly mark CSS related questions as duplicate, without comprehension, linking to an unrelated question, and she doesn’t take the time to consider the person asking the question. I’m not the only person she’s done this to.

    It is a real issue and the StackExchange network needs to change their system.

  2. Was having this conversation yesterday. I mentor a girl going through General Assembly London and she said she was reluctant to post any questions to SO because in GA they tell you not to get discouraged by rude individuals on SO and I agreed 100%.

  3. I moderate Ruby questions on S.O. (to be precise, I am not a moderator, but have accumulated enough reputation* to audit close votes, vote to close questions, etc.) I’m reflecting on the things you’ve linked to, and on the comments you have received, and thinking about how much I might be a part of the problem.

    With the rise of SO’s popularity in the time I have been involved with it (about six years), I perceive a pretty dramatic increase in the volume of low quality questions–questions without any thought towards what information someone might need to solve the problem, or questions that amount to “write me code for free.” These are often people who have not read the guidelines for asking a good question and don’t seem to put any effort into it. I think it’s correct that SO must have a very low tolerance for this sort of question. I also think that, when a question is put on hold because of such problems, that it should be done with politeness and respect for the asker, no matter how awful the question seems. I sometimes see that respect, and sometimes not.

    It’s not always easy. The best people on SO add a polite comment explaining whey they are down-voting, or closing, or whatever and explaining what kind of improvement the question needs. Due to the great volume of questions, and the many demands on my time, I don’t always do this. I’ll have to think about whether I need to do that more, or perhaps just not do moderator functions when I don’t have the time to put in the extra comments.

    I do see snide comments. The truly awful ones can be gotten rid of fairly quickly by flagging them–the moderators are good about deleting such comments when they have been flagged. The marginal ones are tougher. One person’s snide is another’s straightforward truth, and my own personal threshold for “snide” is very, very low. Mr. Rogers low.

    There is one user in particular who has gained the same privileges as I have. I haven’t seen outright abuse, but the user has a level of old-school “RTFM” snide that makes me grit my teeth and clench my fists. He is also very smart and gives many good answers that help people. So I don’t know what can or should be done about him. I flag the worst of his comments, and the moderators delete them. And, looking in the mirror, I am dead certain that I have been responsible of the same sins as this user. It’s easier to see this kind of behavior in another than it is in yourself.

    Another thing I see… and I think this is a serious issue–is people reviewing questions in areas they don’t know. From time to time I find a Ruby question that has been “voted to close” by people who have no Ruby questions or answers on SO–they are experts in some other domain, but are judging Ruby questions. I’ve seen many questions that were obvious to me, as a Ruby old-timer, that were not obvious to the non-Ruby programmers that closed them. There’s a process for re-opening such a question, which sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t, but the real problem is that people ought to review what they know and let someone else review the rest. I haven’t thought of a good way to make that happen.

    I’m not sure I’ve added anything useful to the discussion, but thank you for bringing up the issue… it needs reflecting upon.

    I like to refer to my “reputation” as “ill gotten booty.” This is only half in jest… much of the reputation comes from very simple answers, obvious stuff, that has been linked to from a FAQ somewhere and received disproportionately many up-votes. Many of my “smarter” answers have hardly been voted on at all.

  4. How does the issue of overprivileged trolls at Stack Overflow compare to similar challenges faced by other online communities, and are there lessons that can be learned from addressing these issues elsewhere?

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