StackExchange websites provide an enormous quantity of helpful, focused information. Unfortunately, they also have a history of eliminating an enormous quantity of potentially useful information, submitted in the form of questions from real-world users who do not necessarily see the issue as an expert might.
It is understandable that Stack Exchange sites would encourage people to sharpen their questions — to clarify what they have tried, for example, and to focus on a single problem. Unfortunately, too many moderators at Stack Exchange sites interpret that as a mandate to shut down tremendous numbers of questions that have been appropriately phrased — questions that other users have, in fact, upvoted as helpful. This post provides examples of such behavior.
The Original Example at SuperUser
I began with a question that I originally planned to post on SuperUser, a StackExchange website. By the time I finished it, however, I realized that its style and substance would draw hostility at SuperUser. So I have opted to put the text here, with some rephrasing and elaboration, and to link to this post from there. (An image of that SuperUser discussion also appears near the end of this post. Note also the 2019 update (below), signifying that StackExchange management seems to have begun to learn some things from compliants like this one.)
I was moved to compose this post when I encountered this situation, during an attempt to pose a question about computer software at SuperUser:
The orange bubble on the right side of that image says, “The question you’re asking appears subjective and is likely to be closed.” (Sorry I didn’t keep a larger copy of this screenshot. Ctrl-+ may make it more readable.) The question I was asking (as indicated in the Title box) was, “WordPress in Opera: Suddenly “You Don’t Have Any Drafts.” Somehow, SuperUser was designed to see that as a subjective question.
When I began to write about that orange bubble, SuperUser presented me with relevant questions posed by other SuperUser participants. For instance, Gaius Augustus asked, “Is superuser unfriendly to beginners?” His question pertained primarily to rudeness among users. But as I thought about it, I realized my own question had to do, not only with hostile users, but also with the site itself.
Some users might have found it helpful if I had posted a link from the Gaius Augustus question to this post. After all, this post did constitute a development of his concerns. Unfortunately, that was not possible. As pointed out by a user who called him/herself “unknown (google),” in a question titled “Why so many barriers for newcomers on this dicussion forum?” (sic), newbies were barred from basic participation (in this instance, the ability to volunteer a link), due to lack of SuperUser reputation points.
unknown (google) may have lacked reputation because s/he was a newcomer. For me, the situation was different. I had been blogging about computers for ten years. My blogs‘ total of about 1.7 million pageviews was small compared to the major sites, but it was not nothing. Judging from users’ comments in those blogs, it would seem that I might have something to offer to the SuperUser community.
I lacked reputation to post a simple link, in part, because I was too intimidated to participate. The intimidation derived from prior experience on SuperUser and other StackExchange sites, on two levels: first, I had drawn negativity for asking simple questions and offering useful answers and, second, I had drawn outright hostility for asking about that negativity.
The image (above) illustrates structural hostility within the site itself, as distinct from behavioral hostility encouraged by that structure. The image shows that I had gotten as far as stating my question, and then the SuperUser site promptly responded negatively, with that remark about “subjectivity.” I would appreciate an explanation of that message, not from fellow users who must guess at it, but from the SuperUser coder responsible for its browbeating absurdity.
A StackOverflow Example
Consider another example, again illustrating built-in support for hostility toward seemingly legitimate questions. This was a question I posed on StackOverflow. It was a question about batch files. It seemed like a reasonable question. Yet its net score is -2 at present. As illustrated here, there is no obligation to explain that negativity; even a fully approved user of the site was not sure of its rationale (click to enlarge):
The problem arising in that instance was captured by user623852, who asked, “Why is SuperUser such a negative board?” Data advanced by that user, and by respondents to his/her question, supported the impression of a negative bias.
Two Levels of Structural Hostility
The question here is, why was the site structured to facilitate that negativity? In my batch file example, why were the downvoters not required to provide a rationale that, itself, would have been vulnerable to downvoting? If their objections were due to, say, the style of the question, why were they not obliged to make clear that they were not grading its substance?
The answer may be that the SuperUser site placed trust in its insiders. For some purposes, that trust was surely warranted. But people who have been doing this stuff for years can become impatient with beginners. Some of those responsible for building and maintaining the site may have become effectively incompetent, for purposes of instructing newbies, just as a college English professor might be incompetent at teaching first-grade reading. The site did not appear to be structured to counteract any tendency toward that sort of incompetence over time.
As I say, there appeared to be two levels of structural hostility toward non-professionals. The foregoing examples involved the first of those two levels: they illustrated built-in support for potentially irresponsible negativity toward legitimate questions that were perhaps not phrased or conceived as an expert would phrase or conceive them. The second level involved structural hostility toward those who would question this state of affairs.
It may have seemed that SuperUser had no such second-level hostility — that, to the contrary, it appreciated such questioning, as demonstrated by the existence of a “meta” area in which users could voice complaints about SuperUser. Then again, keeping the dissent in-house may have been more effective, for purposes of maintaining the status quo, than telling dissenters to take their complaints elsewhere.
Allowing ineffectual complaints on a webpage was probably not a good test of commitment on this level — of support, that is, for those who challenged the structure of SuperUser and its affiliated sites. The better test would be, not whether the site merely allowed dissent, to let people blow off steam, but whether it heard and responded proactively to what those people were saying.
On that, the evidence was not encouraging. Consider the users cited above, and the dates of their complaints: unknown (google) (October 2009), Gaius Augustus (July 2015), user623852 (August 2016). It was now nearly October 2017, and I was still finding that the structure of the site actively discouraged non-professionals from participating, even when they seemed to be relatively knowledgeable individuals posing worthy questions.
It appeared, in other words, that SuperUser’s management was actually not very concerned with non-insider perspectives, and did not really mind if outsiders found that the site was built to encourage the bullying, arrogance, and (sometimes) stupidity through which officially approved users often discouraged would-be users from participating.
The second-level structural hostility may have been especially obtrusive, to me, due to a somewhat traumatic prior experience of questioning a certain rule at a StackExchange site. In that case, someone summarized my question in these words: “Why am I getting push-back for linking to my own blog posts in answers?” My writeup, explaining my question, was substantially as follows:
I posted an answer to a question. It linked to a blog post where I had gone through the answer in detail. What I posted did not seem any different from any number of other answers I have seen on Stack Exchange.
For some reason, someone at Stack Exchange notified me that I was in trouble for doing this. I attempted to find out why my answer was objectionable. The person declined to explain. . . .
I suppose I could try to put the full text of the post into my answer here. But I doubt that would go over very well either. The post contains several thousand words.
That is, I had worked through a problem, I saw that someone else had the same problem, I offered a potentially superior solution; and for that, I was penalized. The people at StackExchange were very worried that I might be getting away with something — I might be getting a little bit of self-promotion out of my answer. But they weren’t worried enough to ask whether their reasoning made any sense. How would it benefit me to give a few computer geeks a link to a site that paid me nothing? If I were concerned with getting attention, I would be blogging about, I don’t know, Kim Kardashian, or cats.
So, again, in that instance, there was an example of first-level structural hostility toward non-professional participation — but also, and more importantly, of second-level structural hostility toward critics of StackExchange management. The hostility toward me was particularly intensive, in that case, due to a rising level of personal dislike voiced by a StackExchange moderator who admitted having an emotional response — which, even if it had been appropriate, should never have played a role in the website’s response to my question. In short, my question, challenging the website’s overreaction to external links, wound up with a score of -22. It wouldn’t have gotten that large negative score on a site driven by a managerial determination to hear and respond intelligently to user grievances.
To summarize: SuperUser and, apparently, at least some other StackExchange sites seemed to be structured in such a way as to discourage and penalize (1) non-professionals who posted real questions, and who attempted to provide helpful answers, and (2) those who questioned the site’s hostility to (1). The question posed here was, Why? Why was the site not better structured to encourage participation by outsiders; why was it unresponsive to their complaints; why did it facilitate unexplained and potentially irresponsible negativity by seasoned users who, in some cases, simply seemed to be tired of non-professionals?
I’ll mention, in closing, that, as in that previous example, I anticipated some nitpicking of this writeup (regarding e.g., its length). I was aware, in other words, that some StackExchange insiders preferred disorganized exchanges consisting of an excessively brief initial question, followed by an unnecessary tangle of puzzled comments and misguided answers. To avoid that sort of confusion, this writeup seeks to provide enough examples to support the premise of structural hostility, so as to focus attention on the question of why. And since the site was predictably hostile to that sort of expression, I opted to move this writeup to this location in my computer blog.
At the SuperUser page linked above, I entered a link to this post, and a brief explanation of what it was about. At this writing, that entry had drawn a score of -10. (On later review, it has become -18.) It did appear that I was correct in surmising that users authorized to vote on that site were not interested in hearing what I have said here.
It belatedly occurs to me to add other examples of seemingly gratuitous negativity toward obviously sincere participants asking good questions. I have seen many, but haven’t recorded them; but here’s one, and maybe I’ll remember to add others in the future. In this first instance, again, my question is, why the negative vote? There may be a reason but, once again, the comments do not seem to offer an explanation.
In a subreddit asking for users’ views on the friendliest and most helpful online communities, among 61 comments altogether, numerous responses praised the forums offered by Arch Linux, Ubuntu, and others. I saw just one positive remark about AskUbuntu — and even that participant had much more positive to say about Arch. Otherwise, as one put it, “StackExchange/AskUbuntu/SuperUser/Archlinux are poisonnous communities in my own view cause they’re highly hostile to beginners, most others communities are decent.”
In October 2019, I made the mistake of trying to use another StackExchange site, known as Medical Sciences — resulting in a separate post about that.
Finally, here is an image of the SuperUser page, as of July 21, 2018:
Update, November 14, 2019
I just encountered a message from StackExchange management. It provides at least a partial explanation for why, suddenly, SuperUser is less hostile to me. After more than ten years of blogging computer issues, suddenly I am starting to accumulate a few points on SuperUser.
The explanation is that StackExchange is starting to give more points to people who ask questions. But I suspect this is only a symptom of a deeper change in the organization. I don’t know, but I have to wonder whether this change is related to something I noticed about that StackExchange message: every person named in that message from management is female.
I was a slow learner. It took years of hard experience, at Indiana University and elsewhere (e.g., the University of Michigan, the University of Missouri), before I finally gave up on my childhood assumption of female kindness — before I finally came to understand, that is, the depth of feminist hostilty toward men, especially but not only men of the white heterosexual variety.
My reaction has not been to attack women. As you see, it has been to attack feminists — especially those who have been exploiting female privilege to obtain even more advantages for women who are already among the elite. Sometimes it becomes particularly obvious that their efforts actually work against ordinary women.
I do not know what may explain the supremacy of women in that message from StackExchange management. In various ways just highlighted, the situation there may be terribly hostile to men. But for purposes of improving how StackExchange treats its contributors — notably, the people who are simply trying to get assistance with various technical problems — my impression is that there has been a sudden and very welcome improvement. Maybe it has nothing to do with this sudden emergence of female leadership. But if the women really are part of the explanation, I applaud the arrival of a day when, at least at StackExchange, women may have decided, not to help themselves by behaving more like men, but rather to help the world by behaving more like women.
An Example: David Postill
On November 6, 2019, I posted a SuperUser question asking if there existed another command like copy, move, or xcopy, but with slightly different functionality. As of December 20, 2020, that question and its responses were as follows:
As shown there, one user upvoted the question. My SuperUser activity page indicate that 212 people had viewed the question in the past year. It seems that others had the same question, or were interested in a similar problem. Over time, as my activity page indicates, a question like this can be expected to accumulate several thousand page views.
Moreover, as just shown, someone had edited my question the same day I posted it, presumably improving something in my phrasing; and, the following day, a user named Anaksunaman answered the question in the negative: as far as he knew, there was not a Windows command that would do what I was looking for.
Those actions — editing and responding — suggest that readers were able to understand and answer my question. Anaksunaman had provided one answer. There might be others. For instance, Anaksunaman’s reference to robocopy raises the thought that there might be a way to obtain the desired outcome with a Linux command ported to Windows (e.g., some variant on rsync).
Unfortunately, we’ll never know. That’s because a SuperUser moderator named David Postill took it upon himself to close the question, so that nobody else could try to answer it. For a site oriented toward accumulating knowledge, this would seem to be a stupid thing to do.
Postill offered an explanation. His explanation was sarcastic: “Please note that superuser.com is not a free script/code writing service.” Evidently he thought I was looking for such a service. It is not clear how he could think that. Possibly he did not bother to read Anaksunaman’s response before closing my question. If he had read that, he might have understood that, as I said, I was looking for a specific command — again, a counterpart to copy, move, or xcopy — with a particular functionality. I wasn’t asking anyone to write anything.
Postill was not done. He continued: “If you tell us what you have tried so far (include the scripts/code you are already using) and where you are stuck then we can try to help with specific problems.” These words suggest that he did not even read my question. Again, I had explained that I had tried copy, move, and xcopy, and had also observed what happened when I tried a similar process in the Windows 10 File Explorer.
Postill’s comment closed with the adminition that I “should also read How to Ask.” Possibly he should read that himself. If he did, he would find that, actually, it suggests that he had no right to close my question — because my question did meet the requirements stated there. The only thing he accomplished, by citing that page, was to convey a stuffy, bureaucratic impression that there is a whole procedure that an outsider must go through, before s/he is allowed to ask a question.
Postill is not the only Stack Exchange moderator who uses his/her little bit of power to put people down. I wouldn’t have bothered with this addition to this post if SuperUser offered a reasonable means of fixing the problem. Unfortunately, in this case, there is no such remedy. The problem with my question is between Postill’s ears. I can’t rephrase it to fix that, and his notice provides no indication that there is anyone I can appeal to.
I appreciate that SuperUser and other Stack Exchange sites have their work cut out for them, in managing so many complex interactions. This post is a submission on behalf of those, like myself, whose only power in the matter is the power to document abuses. This particular instance is milder than some, but it serves to illustrate the point.
Anyway, I did revise the question, to explain why Postill’s comment and closing were inappropriate — but, predictably, another SuperUser moderator refused to address it. Instead, he deleted that revision and told me that I would have to start yet another post on Meta — which I would do, if I hadn’t previously tried that, with dismal results. Trying a different approach, I added a comment that pointed here for elaboration.