StackOverflow Considered Harmful?

2015 January 12

I closed my StackOverflow account today, bringing my seven-year relationship with that site to an end as I join the ranks of a small army of bloggers and technologists who’ve grown disillusioned with the flagship Q&A site in its modern incarnation.

That is, I tried to close my account—like most aggressive hungry-for-your-data sites, the latterday StackOverflow doesn’t offer a legit “Delete My Account” link. Instead, you have to beg and plead and explain. And wait. You know the drill.

In fact, as I write this, my account still hasn’t actually been deleted per my simple request. I’ve begged, pleaded, threatened them with fearsome 140-character Twitter @mentions and ill-worded, ranty blog posts. Nothing avails. The one response I did get was this: a week-long soak in the Penalty Box, during which I was unable to do anything with the account, including delete it.

The penalty box is an actual thing. It’s the place where they put “children” (as I suspect StackOverflow users are colloquially referred to around the SO offices) when they’re being Bad:

Our general strategy is to discourage specific problem behaviors, not individual users. But sometimes you just can’t seem to reach people, and it becomes necessary to place accounts in timed suspension.

Penalty box status is public and visible to the world. Colleagues, employers, and co-workers can all see it (by design). The intent it to chastise and embarass the user gently, but publicly. Sort of like a scarlet letter, I guess. So clearly I must have committed some serious transgression of site rules in order to deserve such treatment. Right?

Yup. My sin was to delete five (5) of my own least-valuable questions and answers, out of a couple hundred I’ve submitted over the years, in an attempt to prune low-value content before leaving the site. My greater sin was to express frustration to a mod for taking liberties he never should’ve taken. My still greater sin was questioning the hegemony of mods and power users who have turned StackOverflow into, hands down, one of the unfriendliest places for new users in all of programming.

The timeline went like this:

  1. I delete five of my zero-value answers in an attempt to prune low-value content prior to closing my account.
  2. The system notifies moderator [XYZ] who immediately and without warning places my account on a 7-day suspension.
  3. [XYZ] messages me that “defacing” the site is not permitted, yada yada yada.
  4. I tell [XYZ] to bugger off and that I resent the accusation.
  5. I request account deletion as planned. I have to request it three times before the account deletion link appears, a couple days later…
  6. …and expires (or gets misclicked) because I’m given no warning of this, either.
  7. I write to re-request account deletion—five separate times.
  8. Each time, my request is ignored and at some point, my account is placed on some kind of silent hellban.
  9. And yet, I pick up numerous visits in my referer logs to Coding the Wheel from private mod-only chat rooms on SO. No further communications from moderators or employees and two weeks later, my account has yet to be deleted.

All of that for doing something the StackOverflow interface allows me to do (that’s why every question and every answer has a Delete link) and occasionally expects me to do (which is why they limit it to five deletions per day). For that, the moderator in question reprimanded me for “defacing” the site (his words, not mine) and suggested that he hoped it was all a misunderstanding (which it was, and entirely of his own creation) while proactively freezing my account and putting me in the penalty box for a seven-day soak—all without ever actually, you know, talking to me. And I have a seven-year history with the site! So goes “community” on StackOverflow.

Things went nowhere from there. Real fast.

The problem I have with StackOverflow is that I actually am a user advocate. I actually believe and follow the sorts of things that sites like StackOverflow pay lip service to. Things like:

Crazy stuff like that. I’ve written about, practiced, and dogfooded this stuff for my entire career, often to personal disadvantage. I’ve taken a lot of flack even here on this site for speaking out about user rights in online poker, SQL Server commercial licensing, a dozen other things. Those are my beliefs, and I’ve paid for them. StackOverflow believes in something else entirely. The scary thing is, nobody—not even the site’s creators—seems to know what that thing actually is, anymore.

Luckily for all concerned, the world will “little note nor long remember” my participation on SO. I am no Jon Skeet. I was a member of the early beta and spoke in support of the effort back in 2008, but my daily interaction with the site dropped off as I got busy with other projects. Still, I diligently earned my Beta badge (only to have it retroactively confiscated by a rules change, years later) and racked up six or seven thousand points (pretty much the bare minimum you can have without being laughed off the site by the types of guys that make Sheldon look like a laid-back dude) and I felt like that was a fair price for the use I got out of the site in my daily work.

Seeing what the site has become today—an incubator of second-rate nerd egotism and ill-will posturing as community—I regret even those actions. I regret the entire arc of my involvement with StackOverflow. I may not have invested the time into it that someone like Jon Skeet has, with upwards of thirty thousand answered questions—you could go get a second degree, learn a martial art, or build a full-fledged 3D game with the kind of effort invested by StackOverflow’s top 1% of day laborers—but still. I participated in something that I knew in my heart to be cheap and inauthentic and more than a little dishonest. To wit:

That this site, launched under the pretense of being a friendly haven for programmers to share knowledge under a “community-driven” Q&A, would devolve into something much darker and more Darwinian. That the blatant gamification of Q&A would of course instill a pecking order and encourage ruthless subdivision into cliques worse than that of any high school. That the child’s sketch of a “community” would be surreptitiously grafted onto StackOverflow Careers, hitting programmers in their pocket books, now, and reputations. That every programmer failure and foible would be carved in stone and shared with employers for the rest of the programmer’s natural-born life. That every chance comment or word spoken in heated technical discussion would be recorded and reviewed and use to subtly chastise. That limits would then be imposed on deleting his own questions, or answers, or comments. That this state of techno-serfdom would hide itself behind words like “usability” and “community” and pass itself off as some sort of gift to the programming community at large. And that the programming community would fall for it, hook, line, and sinker, in one of the greatest and most ingenious something-for-nothing episodes of psychological hacking ever perpetrated on programmers.

But mostly, I just regret the wasted time.

I submit to you that it’s impossible to be a serious creator and spend serious amounts of time contributing to StackOverflow. The two are mutually exclusive and, at some point, employers will pick up on this. If Beethoven had spent his time chasing reputation points, we never would’ve seen a 1st symphony, let a lone a 9th. If Brian Kernighan had been a top 1%er on StackOverflow, half of the C language would never been invented. Seeking guidance from the internet in the course of your daily programming work is one thing, but for every answer you contribute to StackOverflow, you’re better off working on your next idea, putting in a few more minutes on the job, or helping out a fellow programmer in your immediate circle, where you’re needed; not halfway around the world. Your time is valuable. More valuable than StackOverflow participation can compensate you for, unless and probably even if you are literally Jon Skeet (if so, what’s up Jon. Big fan of your book.).

Can answering questions on StackOverflow help your career, per Joel Spolsky’s rather self-serving claim? Of course it can, indirectly. But not nearly as much as provocative original work can. Not nearly as much as bonafide, concrete experience can. The way you become a successful programmer is, first and foremost, by writing useful code. Social networking sites—which is exactly what StackOverflow is—can help, but they’re secondary and ultimately irrelevant to your work. At best, they’re a distorted reflection of you. At worse, they’re a potentially ruinous distraction.

(On a side note, can you honestly see someone like Mark Zuckerberg, Paul Graham, or Linus Torvalds spending thousands of hours of their time dutifully answering questions on StackOverflow? No. It flies in the face of reason, sanity, and simple math.)

That is why I closed out my StackOverflow account and shut the door on a seven-year history with the site. For the record.

And now that you’ve heard my tale, hear my recommendation: Do yourself and your career a favor: keep your involvement with StackOverflow to a respectable minimum. Help a fellow programmer occasionally? Yes, if that’s your thing. Devote massive amounts of your personal time and energy helping the site “become” whatever it’s becoming? No. That’s not your mission. That’s not your thing and there’s no life and no future in that for you, only for StackOverflow Corporate as its star continues to rise before inevitably fading. If you feel the urge to participate more than casually, resist it, and spend your efforts and energies elsewhere. The world (and your pocketbook) may thank you for it.

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