The last week we had seen (again) some discussions here what is "wrong" with this site, why are here so many closed and downvoted questions and why people are interpreting this as "hostility" and "unhelpfulness". Peter Tòmas Scott made some kind of survey, and his final suggestions were

  1. Improve communication of the site's purpose.

  2. Change the self-moderating style

The first topic was already adressed here by an attempt of Rachel to get permission for changing the site's name. My question is: how can we address the second point (which is IMHO the more important one)?

Will it improve the sites' perception if we try to improve our means of communication, being more polite, less terse, using the "downvote" button less often against newbies (even when we suggest to close a question), and so on? Let me show you some examples for questions which were closed and/or downvoted in the last 12 hours:

  1. I add dynamically dropdown and input fields rows using Jquery
  2. reading line from text files in java (netbeans)
  3. What's wrong about thos code
  4. While loops in C# for Windows Forms. I'm trying to loop certain coefficients so that they can keep displaying on certain labels

Should we not have a more polite comment template for these kind of "fix-my-code" requests? Like "Hi OP, are you aware that these kind of questions are off-topic on this site? ...".

Moreover, these are a new users, can't we just close those questions instead of giving them a ton of additional downvotes?

  1. Should filenames be relative to their directory name?

Ok, this is primarily opinion-based. But a downvote, and those precanned links? What about enclosing the link into somethink like "Hi XYZ, are you aware that your question is probably too oppionated to let someone give you a good answer, see for more information"?

  1. What should I know to create applications in Phoenix Webframework?

This is IMHO a much better example of how the closing should happen, a comment which was detailed enough to get a "thanks" respond from the OP.

  1. Registration form with email verification
  2. Integrate between PHP and C program

The comments below those question are fine, and the questions are not yet closed. But the downvotes? The questions are not badly written or expect the reader to have a glass-bowl. And what about a friendly comment like "Hi OP, are you aware that questions of this type are often downvoted or closed on this site if they do not show that the asker did some research effort before"

  1. Rejected by recruitment process on bad code review

Closed as "unclear" after it got a long-winded answer with 4 upvotes? Sorry, just because for some of us the question seemed to be unanswerable, others seemed to have a different opinion - and that was obvious at the time of closing. There must be a better way to deal with such questions.

  1. If condition vs variable assignment performance wise

Closed as a dupe (that is debatable, my close vote would have been for a different reason), but 5 downvotes? The question was clearly written and from a newbie. There must be a better way to handle this.

And finally, a more positive one:

  1. Is it ok if I can't solve a problem when sitting in front of a computer?

Correctly closed, because this was not programming specific, and surely too opinionated. But it got lots of comments and upvotes before (still those 3 IMHO unneccessary downvotes). So that is IMHO a much more constructive way of closing a question.

So, what do you think about this?

EDIT: Here is another one I would like to add for demonstration purposes:

  1. Quartz .net does not work when I inject dependency

Why not use a more friendly comment like "Hi SlashMet, are you aware that we have a strict no-crosspost policy here in the stackexchange network? Please delete one of your doubles, or expect the community to downvote and close both of your questions." Of course, that question would be closed either because it is a "fix-my-code" request, and it would surely make sense to tell the OP that, too.

  • similar discussion at MSO: How can we discourage over-downvoting on questions?
    – gnat
    Commented Mar 12, 2016 at 10:05
  • Could we learn something from the folks of MathOverflow? They are a professional's QA side, just like Programmers. They have a more public, "family convenience" cousin, like Programmers. Do they have to deal with a negative image? Why not? How do they deal with the problem of not suitable homework and career questions? Commented Mar 12, 2016 at 10:21
  • @gnat: yes, other SE sites have similar problems, and what is said in the topmost answer for that other question is surely valid, here, too - people take downvotes too personal. We cannot change that - so my suggestion is: let us take more care of that. And I am adressing the community here on Programmers, as a respond to a lot of the former discussions which took place here. I would be happy to hear especially your opinion of what you think about my suggestions.
    – Doc Brown
    Commented Mar 12, 2016 at 10:23
  • @peter_the_oak: don't know how they deal with this. But perhaps someone who is more active there can enlighten us?
    – Doc Brown
    Commented Mar 12, 2016 at 10:27
  • I'll try to have a look into it :-) Commented Mar 12, 2016 at 10:47
  • I pointed that MSO discussion only as additional reference. Programmers and SO are different and we better avoid blindly following them. Also worth noting that despite negative total score that MSO question has got solid 65 upvotes meaning that even over there it wasn't considered as utterly bad idea
    – gnat
    Commented Mar 12, 2016 at 11:02
  • @gnat: yes, I did not interpret your reference differently. But I could not resist to ask you (as one - among others, won't exclude myself from this - who has a quite different style to react to low quality questions) directly for your opinion.
    – Doc Brown
    Commented Mar 12, 2016 at 11:20
  • Related question on Meta.SE : What are the most effective ways to guide new users? and my answer. Feels like I could post the same answer here :)
    – Rachel
    Commented Mar 12, 2016 at 21:05
  • I think the measure of success for communicating with OPs when a question is off-topic is whether they post a "thanks". In general, this is not that difficult. As long as you give them a viable next step they will usually go on their merry way; even if all that you said is 'Programmers.SE is for XYZ, debugging questions should be asked on Stack Overflow'. People are frustrated when they do not know what to do next. It's like cattle; herd them, don't confront them.
    – user174739
    Commented Mar 12, 2016 at 21:49
  • 3
    @peter_the_oak: What "family convenience" cousin does "Programmers" have? I'm not sure whether Math Overflow has a negative public image or not, but I can tell you how they deal with off-topic questions: ruthlessly. Commented Mar 12, 2016 at 23:48
  • "beeing"? Also - programmers.stackexchange.com/questions/312240/… which is meta Q meta.programmers.stackexchange.com/q/7947/102438 is based on, is related.
    – Aaron Hall
    Commented Mar 13, 2016 at 3:56
  • 1
    @RobertHarvey, I thought so :-) Thank you for your hint. But I wonder why they don't have to ask themselves "Are we ruthless, and are we frustrating people, and is our site going down". What's the difference? -- In a certain sense, I compare Stack Overflow to Mathematics, and MathOverflow to Programmers respectively. I don't mean it that tight, but to me there are some similarities. Commented Mar 13, 2016 at 7:14
  • 3
    @peter_the_oak: Math Overflow positioned themselves as a professional site from the very beginning. They had a core of advocates that actively recruited members to the original Area 51 proposal. When they couldn't achieve the level of professionalism they wanted on SE, the separated from SE and became their own site. It wasn't until some time later that they finally returned to the SE fold. Commented Mar 13, 2016 at 17:35
  • 5
    @peter_the_oak: Programmers, on the other hand, was originally "Not Programming Related." It was the place people were supposed to go to ask their questions they couldn't ask on Stack Overflow. But the experiment didn't work; Not Programming Related was widely regarded as the "trash can" of SE. Eventually SE forced a scope change, confusion reigned, and here we are. Commented Mar 13, 2016 at 17:38
  • 1
    @SeldomNeedy, well you could probably call it like this :-) It's here: math.stackexchange.com It has all between both high level university questions and interesting basic education questions, philosophical and practical questions. A lot there is driven by curiosity :-) That's one reason I like this page. But my time is limited... focusfocusfocus... Commented Mar 17, 2016 at 19:10

8 Answers 8


Having worked as a freelancer for years, I hope I can bring a useful comparison between working with customers and answering questions on Stack Exchange. This may eventually be redundant with other answers, but I'll try to make my view more illustrative.

Any company, including freelancers, are faced with bad customers—the ones who will spend time jerking about the product you delivered, behaving unprofessionally and trying to screw you and get your work for free. With experience, it becomes easy to spot some of those customers from the beginning of the project, and so you start looking at ways to get rid of those people. Those ways vary from a simple “Sorry, you're a jerk and I won't work for you” to screwing the project to lawsuits to extremely diplomatic ways to explain them that you may not be the best freelancer/company for their project.

When things go bad and you know that it will go even worse, it's easy to throw the customer away by shouting at him by phone or by sending him an e-mail telling that you're fed up with his unprofessional crap. It's much more difficult to remain perfectly diplomatic and professional yourself and lead the customer decide that he should develop the current/next project by somebody else, not because you suck, but for any reason which preferably seem unrelated with your relations between the customer and you.

So why would it matter to be diplomatic? It's not for the customer. You know that this customer won't bring you any money. Actually, he costs you money and make you miserable, and it won't change. But you do it for the image of your company—a disgruntled customer can do a lot of harm, such as posting publicly the e-mail you sent him where you told him that his project sucks.

Stack Exchange is different: here, all we do, we do it publicly. Comments are public. This discussion is public. It's like if all e-mails and all phone conversations with customers were public, so any potential customer could read and listen those and make an opinion about the company.

The quality of questions like I add dynamically dropdown and input fields rows using Jquery or What's wrong about thos code is a good indicator that we don't want those people on Programmers.SE. If they leave angry at our community and never come back, it's not that had. Many of them won't learn how to ask questions correctly, because they simply don't care. They don't care either about the fact that they are also talking to real people, and plz send teh codez and do my homework for me style questions are not particularly polite in the first place.

The problem, instead, is that other potentially valuable users may come to our site, see those questions and the way they are treated here, and make a negative opinion about the community of Programmers.SE. This is where the actual problem lies.

I can suggest two solutions to that.

  • Be welcome and polite to everyone, including the authors of plz send teh codez questions.

    The issue I can see with this solution is that when this happens, it usually ends up with a discussion. You explain to the person that this is not a good place for such questions, and the OP answers something like: “I don't care about all this meta stuff. Just answer my question.” This could easily lead to not so kind comments and more downvotes.

  • Make the question disappear from the home page. What if the rules which make the question appearing on the home page were different? Such as two close votes and one moderator flag from high rep users make the question immediately vanish for users with low reputation?

    I think it would not only solve the public image of unfriendliness problem, but also make the content more attractive to newcomers (and Google). Meanwhile, high rep users will still see those partially-closed questions and decide whether they are worth being edited/improved/commented, or downvoted/closed/flagged/deleted.

  • I agree fully to your analysis of the problem, that is exactly the point why we should IMHO care more for how we comment low quality questions. Nevertheless I think there must be a third way to solve this - telling new users in a more polite manner "this is off-topic", but without initiating a long-winded discussion. And if someone replies "“I don't care about all this meta stuff", I think it is ok to downvote him publicly - that will probably not harm the site's image.
    – Doc Brown
    Commented Mar 13, 2016 at 10:35
  • 5
    For what it's worth, you have enough reputation and site privileges that you can vote to delete questions like the two you linked once they are -3 or lower (as can @DocBrown and a lot of other folks here). I think one way to increase the overall attitude of P.SE is more quick deletion of stuff that is completely and blatantly off topic, for exactly the reasons you give here.
    – enderland
    Commented Mar 13, 2016 at 13:48
  • 3
    I was just thinking about proposing taking questions with 2-3 close votes off the front page. Nice to see I'm not the only one. Your point about comments is also very true, and the reason why my personal policy is to leave only one comment and immediately disengage if the OP responds less than positively; after that point silence is the most persuasive/least hostile way to get the point across.
    – Ixrec
    Commented Mar 13, 2016 at 19:17
  • @enderland "more quick deletion" was my goal as well for a long time, which is why we have an entire chat room just for gathering close/down/delete votes where they're most needed, but I've recently come to believe that approach is backfiring. It may be that we should have only targeted the blatantly off-topic code dump questions with that policy. However, the fact that we need to -3 a question in order to delete it also gives us a strong reason to downvote off-topic questions even when the OP is not being malicious, so...it's all a big mess.
    – Ixrec
    Commented Mar 13, 2016 at 19:20

My experience on other Stack Exchange sites with similar levels of subjectivity (namely The Workplace) is that people generally want to ask questions that are on topic.

People generally respond well to significant rewrites that capture the essence of the question. I have done this many times on Workplace and occasionally here, and when you leave a comment like, "I've made a large edit to your question to clarify it, if that changed your intent too much feel free to [edit] to clarify!" almost never receive a negative reaction.

I'm demoralized from making edits here, because:

  • It feels like no one really wants to reopen questions (this includes people who want to make the site more friendly - in fact people in this category are precisely the people who I think need to participate more in site moderation!)
  • Many questions here cannot be rewritten this way given lack of information from OP
    • Or are blatantly off topic, like the implementation questions
    • Some level of "what are you trying to do and why" is required to rewrite a question
  • It's a ton of work to make a comprehensive edit compared to VtC
    • When you have limited time for community moderation, VtC >> comprehensive edits

Additionally, canned comments containing links are really not useful at all, especially since nearly all close reasons contain links to the same pages.

And last, related to overall morale:

  • People here seem to prefer telling others what to do about how to make the site better than making edits, placing constructive comments, voting (reopen/upvote/etc) themselves, flagging comments which are "not constructive" or too direct towards new users (use the custom flag if it's a marginal one - trust me as a mod elsewhere, that helps immensely)

Any person here who wants to improve the site culture can do so. The problem is that it certainly feels like many (most?) people do not seem to want to do things themselves, but instead tell the others what to do.

It's hard to spend time finding the diamonds when you are shoveling the... crap. There are a lot of people who have the ability to vote to close/delete questions which are clearly offtopic. If everyone was actively doing this (such as all the implementation questions), I think the overall site community would improve as everyone would have more bandwidth to help edit broken questions.

  • 3
    This answer reads like a lot of whining, and it's all based on a logical fallacy that someone's opinion on how things should be done cannot possibly be accepted unless that person does the thing themselves. In fact, while it would be nice if more people performed moderation, that should never be a prerequisite for listening to feedback on the moderation that is performed, particularly when the aggressive style that that moderation takes is precisely what puts so many others off jumping in themselves. But I suppose I'm being "obnoxious" and "ironic" again, eh, enderland? Shucks. Commented Mar 12, 2016 at 14:42
  • 4
    "while it would be nice if more people performed moderation, that should never be a prerequisite for listening to feedback on the moderation that is performed" Um, yes, it does have to be a prereq. Moderators do not exist to dictate policy; they exist to enforce policy. Policy has to come from users. And if users are just voting to close and moving on, why should moderators be expected to do more? If the people on a site are not willing to pitch in and do the work to improve it, it seems silly to require that moderators do the same. Commented Mar 12, 2016 at 22:46
  • Yes, making rewrites for bad questions is often cumbersome or impossible - I agree. That is why I think we should more concentrate on the way we downvote, close and comment low quality questions. And I am not sure what you mean exactly by "people do not seem to want to do things themselves" - my question addresses exactly the people who already participate frequently in enforcing the site policies. So do you have any suggestions for that?
    – Doc Brown
    Commented Mar 13, 2016 at 7:12
  • @DocBrown Programmers is a community moderated site, which means anyone who has an account here can participate in moderation (voting, editing, commenting, flagging not constructive comments, etc). The actual site moderators take few unilateral actions and rarely participate on the main site. That means we -- people with accounts here -- are the primary moderating force. I have liked seeing your comments on the main site recently, because that is exactly what P.SE needs. People who see a problem and start taking action to resolve it. (cont)
    – enderland
    Commented Mar 13, 2016 at 14:24
  • 2
    ... much of meta on this topic is essentially "you guys suck fix things kthx bye" posts. Overwhelmingly, the people who want to complain about how the site culture here do not take any actions to fix it. The most poignant example is the SE involvement last year. It is incredibly easy for them to drop by and say, "you guys suck, your site culture is bad, stop being meanies" without actually participating in any moderation. For those of us who are closing, editing, commenting, and deleting the mountains of crap questions on a regular basis? That sort of thing is incredibly demotivating. (cont)
    – enderland
    Commented Mar 13, 2016 at 14:27
  • 6
    When I read rants telling people actively shoveling crap where to put it, how to do it, what tools to use, how high to stack it, those posts miss the point - someone has to shovel the crap. And when the shovelers read complaints by people who don't do anything for community moderation and have a "you guys suck fix it!" type of tone to it? It's incredibly demoralizing. I am thankful to see your comments on main, because this is what P.SE needs. More people actually doing things. Actually voting to close off topic questions. Editing/commenting. Voting to delete.
    – enderland
    Commented Mar 13, 2016 at 14:39
  • @enderland: thanks for clarifying whom you had in mind, and thanks for your positive feedback. Nevertheless I think trying to convince those complainers to improve the site by self-participation is an uphill battle. Moreover, IMHO the bad impression some people might have about Programmers is not caused because we have to few people in participating in moderation, it is caused some people which participate in moderation, but in a, lets say, debatable style. And that is where I think should be our focus, because that is something we can at least try to change.
    – Doc Brown
    Commented Mar 13, 2016 at 16:51
  • ... And concerning demoralizing comments: I made the experience if I tell an off-topic poster politely that he is in on the wrong site, with a hint where to post and another hint not to fall into the crosspost trap, I almost never get a "you guys suck fix it!" reply.
    – Doc Brown
    Commented Mar 13, 2016 at 16:56
  • @DocBrown of course it's an uphill battle. In general, it is way easier to tell other people how they are doing things wrong than to change things than to invest time, effort, and energy and actually change the culture. Taking part in "grassroots" change requires effort. Specifically regarding the debatable style problem you describe - use the comment flag feature. Flagging is simple and can alert moderators to a trend of problems. The default flag types such as "not constructive" flag apply to what you suggest, though as a mod elsewhere custom messages can help explain less obivous flags.
    – enderland
    Commented Mar 13, 2016 at 18:44

There's a million angles one could look at this issue from, so here's how I'm interpreting the question:

Assuming our scope and our quality standards do not and should not change, how can we minimize negativity when enforcing that scope and those standards? That includes negative reactions from the asker, and from anyone who views the question before, during or after the "enforcement" takes place.

The big question here is what parts of our "enforcement" elicit negative reactions. It could be downvotes. It could be close votes. It could be the lack of an answer. It could be the canned comments. It could be the non-canned comments explaining why the question can't/shouldn't be answered. It may be unwillingness to nominate some other site as the next place to go when doing these things.

For the most part, the only evidence we have to go on is what people complain about in the comments on these questions, and occasionally in rants here on meta.

In my experience, these are the things I have seen people directly complain about, and what (if anything) I think could be improved there:

  • Downvoting without an explanation. These comments seem to happen mostly on questions which are on-topic but judged to be too broad or opinion-based. Personally, when I down or close vote, I will usually write a comment explaining the problem if such a comment does not already exist (unless it's exceptionally lazy or just blatantly off-topic). I can understand others not doing this, as these are usually things we've explained a million times before and very few OPs even attempt to fix the question, much less fix it successfully. But despite that, I believe it's worth encouraging more people to write these comments more often, and avoid down or close voting on questions which do not have such a comment if they are unwilling to write one themselves. It's also worth noting most of my downvotes are intended solely to get poor questions off the front page before they get poor answers, which is a behavior I think many people share, and I'm open to rethinking it since poor questions getting poor answers no longer seems to be our biggest problem.

  • Voting to close a question. This is relatively uncommon simply because most OPs lack the ability to see close votes. But it does happen, and when it does it's usually for too broad/POB votes. As I recently said in chat, I believe those are the most controversial close reasons, and the most abused (where "abuse" means closing questions that do not need to be closed at all), so I have personally decided to not use those close reasons on any question I believe could get a useful answer, unless it has already gotten multiple bad answers to prove otherwise.

  • Refusing to answer a question the OP believes is answerable. This happens on all types of close-worthy questions, from recommendations to broad/POB to debugging. I haven't noticed these comments being more or less common depending on whether the question is getting downvotes, close votes or canned comments. I take this to mean many askers are here solely to get their question answered, and don't care about any other form of response they get. There's not much we can do in these cases, since answering these questions (even in the form of a comment) is equivalent to changing the scope of the site, and that's a discussion for another meta thread.

  • Canned comments. While I've never seen an OP specifically accuse these comments of being unhelpful, these seem to increase the probability of a follow-up comment complaining about unexplained downvotes or our refusal to answer the question. I have never used canned comments, and in my experience, every time an asker reacted non-negatively after an "enforcement comment" was posted (either by quietly self-deleting or by writing a positive/neutral reply) it was a non-canned comment that did it. The meta posts we like to link to are definitely useful (as evidenced by other sites starting to use them), but I believe our comments must contain some handwritten content before the recommended reading link to ensure a positive outcome.

  • Accusatory or rude comments. Although I hate making ad hominem attacks, and don't want to imply any of this site's problems can be blamed entirely on a single user, we can't talk about negativity on this site without addressing the elephant in the room. gnat is the only P.SE user who very frequently posts comments questions which directly accuse the asker of "spamming", "dumping", evading a question ban, ignoring previous warnings or otherwise being deliberately malicious. He is also one of only two users I've ever seen referred to by name multiple times on multiple sites by disgruntled users as a major source of negativity and frustration. While I agree with the majority of his downvotes and close votes, and his targets are almost always legitimately bad posts, the rudeness simply has to stop. It's not encouraging newbies to follow the rules; it's encouraging them to hate the rules and the "cabal" that enforces them.

In my experience, these are things I have almost never seen people directly complain about:

  • Handwritten non-accusatory comments. These sometimes prompt the OP to seek loopholes in our policies or argue about what our scope should be rather than address the problem directly, but they never seem to increase the amount of negativity in the thread unless other factors such as speedy downvotes and rude/canned comments are already in play. The exception is when the OP responds, but doesn't really "get it" and a lengthy but unproductive comment discussion ensues. This is why I normally stick to one explanatory comment per question, even when the OP does respond to me, and it seems like most of the people who write these comments already tend to do the same.

  • Anything we do to a "code dump" question. Most of these are "drive-by" OPs who we never hear from again, so the fact that they're usually getting quickly closed and downvoted off the front page is probably a good thing.

  • Suggesting other sites the OP could ask on. There is a "your princess is in another castle" argument to be made here, and it's been suggested that even providing this level of help encourages repeat offenders (which I personally doubt), but I've never seen OPs complain about us redirecting a question instead of answering it ourselves.

  • 9
    Everytime I've explained my downvote in response to an OP's request to do so, I get drawn into a "discussion," so I don't do it anymore. Commented Mar 12, 2016 at 23:39
  • 2
    Two suggestions: 1) Better to make your explanation before the OP makes the request and 2) don't respond afterwards. It is important to remember that your comment isn't just seen by the OP, but also every other new user to the site and they ones we should worry about driving off.
    – user53141
    Commented Mar 13, 2016 at 6:20
  • 2
    I am not sure every comment needs to be "handwritten". But I guess when someone uses canned comments or comment templates, it might be a good idea to make as polite as possible.
    – Doc Brown
    Commented Mar 13, 2016 at 7:28
  • Whilst it is true that gnat can be terse and often copies stock responses, I think this is due to the sheer volume of poor questions rather than any malicious intent. In fact, he is that efficient, I originally thought he was a bot - heh.
    – Robbie Dee
    Commented Apr 7, 2016 at 10:58
  • I agree that he is not malicious. It's entirely possible to be rude without any ill intent. But fortunately we don't even need to debate this any more because gnat recently stopped making all of the comments that I felt were rude/non-constructive.
    – Ixrec
    Commented Apr 7, 2016 at 11:37

I absolutely agree that we need to be more welcoming. This is something that all of us who actively curate and moderate the site need to be more cognizant about. I am going to quote from our own help center.

Be nice

  1. Rudeness and belittling language are not okay. Your tone should match the way you'd talk in person with someone you respect and whom you want to respect you. If you don't have time to say something politely, just leave it for someone who does.

I believe our weakness is we can be too terse when dealing with new users. Commenting with a canned link with no other explanation is one example. We may not use rude language per se, but some users are clearly interpreting our terseness as being rude. Suck up your pride buttercup, we the 3k+ regular users are the ones that need to change our attitude, not the "omg lolz gimme teh codez" newbie posters.

As a military NCO, as a civilian manager, as a person who has had to deal with angry customers, I have had many people in my face and angry for a variety of reasons. Being rude, terse, or belittling is not a solution to the problem. We need to be calm, professional, and to move the situation to a positive result even when others are not interested in working with us toward that goal. If a new user is confused, upset at a comment, does not understand how to edit their question, someone needs to make an effort to help.

This dovetails nicely into the next point:

  1. Be welcoming, be patient, and assume good intentions. Don't expect new users to know all the rules — they don't. And be patient while they learn. If you're here for help, make it as easy as possible for others to help you. Everyone here is volunteering, and no one responds well to demands for help.

There is a key there: do not expect new users to know all the rules. While we have seen a thousand off-topic, too broad, POB questions, new users have not. We already know that while the help center and tour are good resources, expecting every new user to read and understand those resources is a pipe dream. We need to help guide them in the right direction, rather than assume the worst. The guidance above says to assume good intentions. Rather than assume anything, let the new user prove whether they are here to make positive contributions or to troll or spam. There is an old saying about giving someone rope to hang themselves: let the user choose what to do with the rope and let us assume the best until proven otherwise.

  1. Don't be a jerk. These are just a few examples. If you see them, flag them:

I omitted the list of obvious stuff. I do not believe we have an issue with being jerks to new users, other than the terseness mentioned above.

What topics can I ask about here?

Programmers Stack Exchange is a Q&A site for professionals and students in software development and related fields who are interested in getting expert answers on conceptual questions about software development.

Before showing the list of what is on-topic, the first thing we encounter on that page is our intended audience.

Most of us regulars fall into the professionals in software development. We have graduated college, worked in our profession for several years to several decades, and know quite a bit. There is a reason we are the ones with high rep: we have the knowledge and experience to make many positive contributions to the site.

On the flip side, students are also included. While our profession is unique in that we have many brilliant, self-taught individuals, not everyone is like that. We need to expect that there will be students who fall at both ends of two spectrums: skill level and educational coursework. We may receive questions from people who are in semester one of freshman year, or who are at the graduate level. We may receive question from people who are really good or really bad at software development. We need to welcome everyone and be patient with those who need a little extra handholding.

On Canned Comments

The canned comments and links have come up a few times. I wanted to focus on this specific aspect a little bit.

We see a lot of the same problems over and over again. Rather than typing the same guidance over and over, it makes sense to collect it in a meta post and link to that meta post. We get consistency that way, and questions and answers can be much, much longer than a comment.

I do not advocate for stopping the canned comments and meta links. But I do agree with the point several people brought up that we need to personalize them more. One of the examples Doc Brown brought up in this meta question was mine: I linked to a meta post with all the details about why the question was off-topic, then I explained what the user needs to do. While answering questions in comments is not what Stack Exchange wants us to do, I felt that saying "nope, sorry, can't ask that here" was too jerkish. I will break down what I feel any comment explaining an off-topic or broad/POB/unclear question must do:

  1. Provide a link to a meta post that goes into more detail about why the question is not appropriate.

  2. Provide a brief explanation of the deficiency in this specific question. If I ask a question that is going to be closed, I want to know how I can improve it. While the meta link may wax poetic about various problems, I might not know how it applies to my specific question.

  3. For off-topic questions, end with a note saying "while this question is off-topic, if you later encounter conceptual or design issues, those may be on-topic questions for this site."

I strongly advocate against suggesting that a user may be trying to circumvent a question block on Stack Overflow, or stating that a user has recently asked multiple poor-quality questions, even if there is evidence for it.

The only exception would be one from a few days ago. MichaelT told a user that he had asked several poor-quality questions and may receive a temporary question ban. He offered guidance about how to improve the questions and avoid a question ban. I cannot find the link to his comment right now but the point is he was being positive and constructive, trying to help the user avoid an unpleasant situation.


The main takeaway from all of this is that we need to do a better job of guiding new users toward making positive contributions to this community. This will require stepping up our professionalism to the next level and investing more time curating questions beyond close/down votes and canned comments. If we show new users that we care, those new users are more likely to return the sentiment and be positive contributors to Programmers.SE.

  • 1
    FWIW, the tagline for Programmers (questions about conceptual programming topics) really doesn't say anything at all about the site scope. There isn't anything useful that a new user can divine about the scope of the site by reading that phrase. Commented Mar 14, 2016 at 5:40
  • @RobertHarvey did I make that assertion? I just skimmed through this answer I do not believe I mentioned the tagline or even the word "scope" anywhere in my answer.
    – user22815
    Commented Mar 14, 2016 at 5:44
  • 1
    You featured it prominently in your answer, coupled to a discussion about site scope. Commented Mar 14, 2016 at 5:45
  • @RobertHarvey the closest I think I come to that is "Before showing the list of what is on-topic, the first thing we encounter on that page is our intended audience" followed by a discussion of the site's audience, posted to a question stating that we users need to do a better job with how we react to low-quality questions. I am not sure what site scope has to do with anything here, or how I could improve my answer based on your feedback.
    – user22815
    Commented Mar 14, 2016 at 13:46
  • 1
    what is on topic == site scope Commented Mar 14, 2016 at 15:04

Specifically regarding downvoting, one important observation is that when viewing the homepage questions that are -4 or lower are not visible.

I do not know how many people view this link, but given how often bumped content of mine receives upvotes across the SE network, I suspect quite a few do.

Additionally, questions that are -3 or lower can be deleted immediately by 20,000 trusted users:

Voting to delete questions with a score of -3 or lower immediately after they are closed

  • I'm not sure what you're getting at here. If you're saying that highly-downvoted questions seldom get closed because they no longer receive views, you're right. Commented Mar 12, 2016 at 23:38
  • @RobertHarvey they are removed from the "homepage" and stop cluttering it with blatantly off topic questions -- this sure feels like a good goal and reason to downvote "plz fix teh codez" types of questions to at least -4.
    – enderland
    Commented Mar 13, 2016 at 0:00
  • So we should still give lots of downvotes and close votes, because by doing so a low quality questions will vanish from the homepage sooner as if it gets only close votes?
    – Doc Brown
    Commented Mar 13, 2016 at 7:35
  • 3
    @DocBrown I don't really know. But it is a factor I have considered when downvoting blatantly off topic questions as it is the mechanism(s) that SE has provided.
    – enderland
    Commented Mar 13, 2016 at 13:45
  • I think downvoting to get off the homepage is actually a bad idea overall. I had P.SE open the other day without being logged in, and it showed me 14 questions only. If you click "More Questions" at the bottom, it takes up to the newest questions, of which the majority were downvoted. So from my point of view, the impression of an unfriendly community is actually stronger than if we didn't try to downvote everything so far.
    – Rachel
    Commented Mar 15, 2016 at 14:02
  • In addition, unregistered users still get the "x questions with new activity", and upon clicking on that it almost always loads a question with a negative score due to the speed of our downvoters. Being at -1 is usually enough to make someone ask what is wrong with their question, while a rapid -4 tends to be overkill and just contribue to the "hostile community" impressions
    – Rachel
    Commented Mar 15, 2016 at 14:02

I think what gets forgotten is that while long-time users have seen thousands of "do my homework" requests and hundreds of rants disguised as questions, people coming to the site for the first site haven't. For them, their introduction to the site is the first few questions they see. If they response to questions seems impolite, flippant or rude in the first five questions they see, those will probably be the last five questions they see.

And some of those people are potentially valuable contributors.

When you act on a question, you are not speaking to the OP. You are speaking to everyone who visits the site.

And yes, it is hard to keep a polite view after the fifteenth conceived, poorly spelled garbage question, but if we really want to make the sit welcoming to new users, that's exactly what people will have to do. No, it isn't easy, and speaking personally I often don't have the time or inclination to put that much work in myself. So in a real sense, I am speaking to the contributors who have more time, and more energy for this site than I do, and saying:

If you don't have the energy to close and describe the reason...you don't have the energy to close. It is better to make fewer "high quality" close votes than many "drive by" closes.

Obviously no one's going to care if two line, ungrammatical piece of garbage gets closed immediately. But every question deserves as much care in close votes as went in to the asking. If someone obviously spent a lot of time putting together a question, then it deserves real attention when closed even if it is clearly wrong for the site.

As a concrete suggestion, I suggest adding new canned "close vote" reasons:

  • Rant disguised as a question
  • Do my homework request

Finally, not wanting to point to any particular users, but you should be very careful of saying "possible duplicate" in comments. It smacks of looking for reasons to downvote. We should not be looking for reasons to downvote. Instead, it should be either downvoted as a duplicate (if it is) or phrased as a helpful comment, like "Hey, you might want to check out this other question, which may help you".

We want people to think we're trying to help them rather than looking for an excuse to boot them.

  • Exactly my point. Though I do not think a question should be downvoted only for beeing a duplicate (closed - yes). Yes, the OP should have taken more research effort before, but having the same kind of question asked in different words, with links to their dupes, increases the chance of being found again when someone searches for a specific topic.
    – Doc Brown
    Commented Mar 13, 2016 at 10:25
  • 2
    We can only have 3 canned close reasons active at any given time. You would need to replace two of the existing with those. You can see the stats on how often the current ones are used at programmers.stackexchange.com/tools/question-close-stats (in the past 30 days, 17% have been closed for debugging, 10% for recommendations, and 5% for career advice). There haven't been significant custom close reasons for rant or homework. The best way to make a case for those two is show why the existing are inadequate and close with a close reason that you can point to in the stats.
    – user40980
    Commented Mar 13, 2016 at 19:09
  • The "rant disguised as question" category is actually quite rare in my experience. We have a lot of those lying around from NPR, but I see less than one a day coming in now. The "do my homework requests" almost always fall under "unclear" or "debugging/troubleshooting" so they don't need a separate reason imo. If we are missing a close reason, it'd be "configuring or troubleshooting a tool/framework/OS" (we tend to use "debugging" for that which is often a bit of a stretch). But nitpicks aside, I agree that less dupe comments and more close reasons would help.
    – Ixrec
    Commented Mar 13, 2016 at 19:25
  • Ah, I didn't realize there was a limit. But I don't think "do my homework" requests should be closed as "unclear" as "unclear" implies that proper explanation can save the question, which is clearly not true for a homework request.
    – user53141
    Commented Mar 13, 2016 at 21:22
  • 1
    @StevenBurnap: "Do my Homework" questions are Too Broad, as is every "write my code for me" request. Commented Mar 14, 2016 at 5:32
  • @MichaelT sort of update - "limit of three close reasons currently seems to be per-site and technically can be increased to at least 5. I just noticed that Stack Overflow has got five custom close reasons..."
    – gnat
    Commented Mar 14, 2016 at 15:55
  • Sometimes people are lazy. It is easier to down vote rather than go thru the flag screens to suggest where the post should belong (if indeed it belongs anywhere).
    – Robbie Dee
    Commented Apr 7, 2016 at 10:37

Apart from the politeness aspect which is covered already (and I would assume to be a standard for all users here), I would like to say that helping users who have posted here against the site's purpose is probably of paramount importance.

If a new user comes across Programmers and thinks "a site for programmers, I'm a programmer, I have a question about my code that's not working" and posts a question that should be on SO, we should simply help them along by migrating it to SO. No need for a downvote, no need for comments, just pass it on and leave link saying "this should have been posted over here, we've moved it for you. Please read the site's FAQ".

This doesn't necessarily apply to SO though, there are many questions that should be moved to Workplace or Security or DBAs.

I think we need better tools to manage this kind of process. Maybe a "should be moved to a different SE site" is all that's needed, and a a mod can manually decide which and move it on (if direct options are not available).

This would be efficient, and helpful to the new users without telling them they did wrong - just put them right and let them continue. I think people would respond happily to that, particularly if the question they asked then started to get answers from a more appropriate home.

  • 1
    Decent questions do get migrated to Stack Overflow, generally, without very many downvotes. The problem is many implementation questions are straight up "write code for me [without me saying what code]" types of things. Or "here are 500 lines of code plz fix [fix what?]." Also as a moderator on Workplace probably 1/100 of the questions here that are about the topic of career/etc are a good fit there for the same reasons they are not great here. Most are "please tell me what to do with my life" which is better for chat.
    – enderland
    Commented Mar 16, 2016 at 11:42
  • @enderland exactly, the migration route to SO is working well, and obviously useless questions get closed. So we have to consider the other ones that are off-topic - if they could be migrated appropriately then they'd no longer be a "problem" here. The answer to the OP is never a single point, it'll require several steps and I think a better migration route will be part of that.
    – gbjbaanb
    Commented Mar 16, 2016 at 12:58
  • Migrate to /dev/null? :)
    – enderland
    Commented Mar 16, 2016 at 12:59
  • 1
    @gbjbaanb we can already flag a question for moderator attention and say "should be migrated to <insert site without a direct migration path>". Moderators can migrate anywhere.
    – user22815
    Commented Mar 16, 2016 at 16:27
  • @Snowman how many people actually do that though?
    – gbjbaanb
    Commented Mar 17, 2016 at 8:44
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    @gbjbaanb I do it when appropriate (not often), and you suggested it in your answer. My point is that we already have this ability.
    – user22815
    Commented Mar 17, 2016 at 15:14
  • "This would be efficient, and helpful to the new users without telling them they did wrong - just put them right and let them continue." :) This could have been from the help center: "Be welcoming, be patient, and assume good intentions. Don't expect new users to know all the rules — they don't. And be patient while they learn." Commented Mar 30, 2016 at 11:25

The elephant in the room is that the possibility of a negative score is itself the problem. We are in the main, technical people but I do try to make a point of researching soft skills to make myself a more rounded professional (doughnuts help).

A tome written long ago by Dale Carnegie has this to say about people:

  • They liked to be praised
  • They hate being criticised

Note this is about people in general - not just IT professionals who are sometimes dubbed as lacking inter-personal skills (as if!).

So - my suggestion: Do away with negative scores. They serve no purpose whatsoever and are a constant source of ill feeling and bickering.

If you enter an exam room and totally mess it up - your net result is zero. It has served us well for centuries - let's bring zero back!

Rather than a negative score, convert the downvotes into flags underneath the score that has a tally of people who think this question could be improved.

Problem. Solved.

Will this happen? I seriously doubt it.

  • 1
    There is surely some truth in your answer. Nevertheless I think "Programmers" has a problem most other SE sites do not have though they have the same mechanics of up- and downvotes.
    – Doc Brown
    Commented Apr 6, 2016 at 16:18
  • I think doing a direct comparison with other sites is comparing apples and oranges. We encourage more open ended question here than maybe SO. Taking just this point - there are always going to be questions of this ilk which people will spend time on whereas others will deem to be woolly.
    – Robbie Dee
    Commented Apr 6, 2016 at 18:46
  • 1
    "downvotes are taken so damn personal..."
    – gnat
    Commented Apr 7, 2016 at 9:57
  • 1
    The point is that downvotes in their current form aren't doing their job - they're lost in the noise of the score. "This is a good post" is not the opposite of "this post needs improvement". In fact I've seen many a good post that could be improved further. Then of course, the comments section just gets massively bloated out with suggestions. End result - even more noise.
    – Robbie Dee
    Commented Apr 7, 2016 at 10:33

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