I (Jason) wrote The Stack Overflow Comment Evaluator 5000™, a simple application that presents you with a comment thread from a post on Stack Overflow and asks you to rate each comment in the thread as Fine, Unwelcoming, or Abusive.
Prevalence of comment categories
If we take a majority vote on the rating of each comment (with ties going to the worse rating) comments on Stack Overflow break down like so…
Rating % of comments Fine 92.3% Unwelcoming 7.4% Abusive 0.3%
According to those of us deeply involved here and familiar with Stack Overflow, about 7% of comments on Stack Overflow are unwelcoming. What did some unwelcoming comments look like? These combine elements of real comments to show typical examples.
- “This is becoming a waste of my time and you won’t listen to my advice. What are the supposed benefits of making it so much more complex?”
- “Step 1. Do not clutter the namespace. Then get back to us.”
- “The code you posted cannot yield this result. Please post the real code if you hope to get any help.”
- “This error is self explanatory. You need to check…”
- “I have already told how you can… If you can’t make it work, you are doing something wrong.”
This stuff isn’t profane, hate, or outright abuse, but it’s certainly unwelcoming. Looking at majority voting is one approach, but the experience of being not welcomed is not a majority vote kind of thing; it’s deeply personal. What if we looked at the distributions of the ratings by individual?
- We at Stack Overflow want to more clearly frame our expectations around our community standards. Watch for updates about the evolution of our “Be Nice” policy into a fully articulated code of conduct.
.. The unwelcoming comments are valid criticisms, that can be expressed in a much more welcoming manner. The problem is large enough that StackOverflow is stereotyped and memed as being unwelcoming. That warrants attention, in my book.
.. I think you’re coming at this from the wrong angle. You’re thinking “let’s calculate a metric, and if that metric is below X, we don’t have a problem. Everyone who thinks there is a significant problem is wrong.”
Whereas I think the reality is: a huge number of people think there is a problem. Women in particular, who don’t contribute because they think it’s an unwelcoming place. So I’d reframe it as “let’s calculate a metric X, and now we know that at level X, we have a problem. We don’t yet know at what level we don’t have a problem anymore, but it must be less than X’.
.. SO claims to be a Q/A platform for professional and enthusiast programmers and for questions about programming that are tightly focused on a specific problem. So the questions must exactly tell that specific problem. This is often nothing what a beginner can do. So in my opinion SO is not a Q/A platform for beginners in programming. So this user group will always feel not welcoming here simply because it is not. Maybe SO should providing a special beginners Q/A portal additionally?
.. Maybe my personal bias is showing, but these 5 example “unwelcoming” comments don’t look like that to me at all. I’ve definitely gotten way harsher ones on my posts in the past and at no point did I feel them to be unwelcoming whatsoever.
.. As it was stated above, those examples of unwelcoming comments above weren’t actual comments pulled from SO; they were pieced together from little bits and pieces of unwelcome comments. You can’t identify the writers of the original comments, as they weren’t written by a user. There is no privacy violation. No one has been put in a hall of shame.