Stack Exchange is not a forum: the role of “niceness” on a Q&A site

by Josh Heyer

on August 8, 2012

It’s been a few weeks now since Joel kicked off our “summer of love”. There’ve been some excellent discussions in the blog comments and on Meta, and we’ve tried to present some hard data on how objectively “nice” we are. But it’s high time to talk about what place “niceness” really has on Stack Exchange. And to do that, we need to start by talking about you:

You, sir, are a jackass.

And that's ok.

Stack Overflow wasn't created to be some utopian ideal of peace and love. When Jeff & Joel set out to create this system, they knew full well the sort of problems that face online communities: noisy conversations obscuring real information, preferential behavior toward those in the right cliques, bickering, rudeness...

The rules we've created, the tools we have at our disposal, the very nature of certain features on the sites - these are all engineered to __mitigate the problems that inevitably result from throwing a bunch of jackasses together in one place.

Stack Overflow people are nice because we're good at cleaning up after ourselves... And staying focused on what's really important.

Civility is a tool for communication, not a weapon for order

You might think you hang out on SO because people are nice there, but if Stack Overflow was full of very nice, impeccably polite misinformation... It wouldn’t be a valuable resource for professional programmers. It’d be more like some elaborate geek troll.

It’s good to keep politeness in mind when writing, as your tone can distract readers from your message. It's great to have something approaching real data on how “nice” we are. But in the end, this sort of navel-gazing misses the point: we’re not here to pat each other on the back and hand out gold stars, much less waggle our fingers at the jackasses - we’re here to share the knowledge of our craft.

Stop and think for a moment about the nicest person you’ve met on Stack Exchange. Chances are, it wasn’t the guy who greeted you by name when you signed on - it was the one who answered your first question, convinced you to clarify what you were asking, and calmly pointed out your misconceptions before pointing you to a solution.

Rudeness as a defense against vampires

As a traditional forum evolves over time, insular rudeness becomes the weapon of choice against the invading hordes, an immune response by the organism toward infection from outsiders. This is only marginally effective, since the most dangerous invaders have long ago developed a resistance to it. Eventually, rudeness becomes institutionalized, to the point where members start to drive away everyone - including each other. It's a natural progression. And on Stack Exchange, it's entirely unnecessary.

Everyone loves to quote from the FAQ's etiquette section, particularly the first "be nice" bit. But it's the last section that has all the action items:

Be honest.

Above all, be honest. If you see misinformation, vote it down. Add comments indicating what, specifically, is wrong. Provide better answers of your own. Best of all — edit and improve the existing questions and answers!

Tired of seeing crappy questions? Close them. Irritated by lousy answers? Down-vote them. Depressed by the meaningless junk that some people post whenever they see an empty text field? Delete it! Embarrassed by poor grammar or formatting? Edit it! See someone being rude? Flag it! All of these tools exist, and we're working hard on making them better and more effective.

So when you can cast a vote and go on with your life, why would you waste your time ranting? It's that old message board mentality creeping in. When you leave a comment, recognize that you're now walking the line between a Q&A site and a traditional forum. If you aren't actively trying to help someone learn, you're not helping to defend the realm - you're just being a jackass.

The choice here isn't between being nice and being right. You can be nice each and every time you guide someone to the right answer or the correct behavior, and doing so is not only better for the community morale, it's also more effective. That doesn’t take a welcoming committee, it’s something anyone can do. Even jackasses like me and you.