StackOverflow is Not a Help Forum

Ethan Glover

StackOverflow has for a very long time been described as toxic and unwelcoming to beginners. Or really unwelcoming to anyone that is not very deep into StackOverflow's very specific niche rules and mentality.

The chances of being able to ask a simple question and get genuine help or an answer are very low. You can spend multiple days working to ask the perfect question. You can follow every rule laid out in this 1,281 word article and this referenced 3,141 word article. But your question is still most likely to be downvoted, locked, and peppered with petty complaints by “mods” and “super users.”

What StackOverflow is trying to do, in theory, makes sense. As the homepage says, StackOverflow is, “A public platform building the definitive collection of coding questions & answers.”

Meaning, StackOverflow is not a QA forum. It is meant to be a place where specific questions have definitive answers. As with Wikipedia, duplicate pages are not allowed, spelling errors are regularly fixed, and anything that doesn't follow a specific format and standard is removed.

The idea that there can be an encyclopedia for very specific questions about code is, to me, a fundamentally flawed one. Code evolves too often. There's an infinite number of problems and an infinite number of solutions. The idea just doesn't make sense. Beginners need to be able to ask “stupid questions” until those neurons start to connect in a way that they can start creating smart solutions.

But for the top percentage of SO users, this idea of SO being an encyclopedia instead of a forum must be protected at all costs. This is what makes it feel so toxic and unwelcoming. You can't just ask a question and get an answer. You instead must contribute to this encyclopedia of definitive questions and definitive answers.

Today's developers are better off with using tools like CoPilot, CodeWhisperer, TabNine, or Kite to get inline suggestions for languages they are unfamiliar with. These provide better feedback and cost less time than trying to force an SO answer on your particular project or spending days trying to formulate the perfect encyclopedic question.

This may be my personal Google history, but overtime I have started to see more results for GitHub issues than StackOverflow when looking for different problems.

I think package and library maintainers of OSS on GitHub are far more welcoming and of course far more helpful than their SO counterparts. However, this starts to create a lot of noise. For maintainers, issues are meant to be for legitimate bug reports and feature requests. Not for issues beginners have with using their library. So when asking questions, people are often redirected to a Discord channel or help forum specific to the team that's maintaining the repo.

This is great, but there's still a problem. Having to hunt down the appropriate place to ask questions for every tool. It's not always obvious where you're supposed to go to get a simple answer to a simple question.

I feel like GitHub could solve this problem well. By creating a general forum that can reference specific repositories. This allows package maintainers to watch questions about their work without burying important issues. And it allows people to help one another without following specific repo conversations.

The world of getting help with code online is a bit fractured, it's hard to know where to go. StackOverflow is no longer a sensible option. Reddit is... it's Reddit, always has been. It would be nice to see a very popular platform like GitHub take on the challenge of creating a safe space for developers to get help and help one another.

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