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Programming Stats

Stack Overflow and the Zeitgeist of Computer Programming ( 171

An anonymous reader writes: Stack Overflow remains one of the most widely-used resources in the developer community. Around 400,000 questions are posted there every month. The Priceonomics blog is using statistical analysis to ask, "What does the nature of these questions tell us about the state of programming?" They see tremendous growth in questions about Android Studio, as well as more generic growth in work relating to data analysis and cloud services. Topics on a significant decline include Silverlight, Joomla, Clojure, and Flash (not to mention emacs, for some reason). The article also takes a brief look at the site's megausers, who receive a lot of credit for keeping the signal-to-noise ratio as high as it is, while also taking flack for how the Stack Overflow culture has progressed. "Others are worried about how Stack Overflow has impacted programming fundamentals. Some critics believe that rather than truly struggling with a problem, developers can now just ask Stack Overflow users to solve it for them. The questioner may receive and use an answer with code they do not truly understand; they just know it fixes their problem. This can lead to issues in the long run when adjustments are needed."
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Stack Overflow and the Zeitgeist of Computer Programming

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  • by creimer ( 824291 ) on Monday November 23, 2015 @12:51PM (#50985969) Homepage
    Can you tell me how to finish my homework assignment for Script Kiddie 101?
    • by T.E.D. ( 34228 )
      Nah, they never say that. Instead, they paste the entire text for the homework problem in the text box verbatim, then hit "post".
      • by creimer ( 824291 )
        I find it more interesting that some questioners will twist themselves into a pretzel to hide the fact that they want someone else to provide the answer to their homework problem.
        • by Anonymous Coward on Monday November 23, 2015 @02:52PM (#50987147)

          I find it more interesting that some questioners will twist themselves into a pretzel to hide the fact that they want someone else to provide the answer to their homework problem.

          I caught one of these miscreants by posting a solution with a non-obvious bug for a course in which I was a TA. When it came time to grade the assignments low and behold the verbatim answer appeared in no less than 100 students. Despite the warning posted on StackOverflow saying the code should be tested before use. None of the one hundred bothered running the code. Lazy bastards.

          • by KGIII ( 973947 )

            We've got a "stock answer" for it over on the AskUbuntu side of the SO network. It is, basically, "I will not ask homework questions on AskUbuntu." It includes a link to Bart Simpson writing out similar on a chalkboard. It is usually easy to tell which is which and, often enough, the user opts to delete their question. The questions frequently have very ethnic usernames associated with them - I'll leave it to others to speculate.

            That's not really my pet peeve. Not at all...

            What *really* irks me is the peopl

  • how is this any different from people self-diagnosing their problems using WebMD?

    • Well, sometimes the replies are amazing. "This is an undocumented way the compiler actually works" or "the debugger is actually crashing here, the reasons why are X, Y or Z, good luck.

      Sometimes the replies make it easier to figure out how to use a library.

      Sometimes they point to papers on algorithims I never found on my own.

      But you have to be able to read it to separate the signal from the noise. It's more like the Physician's Desk Reference. Great if you're a doctor, maybe only as useful as WebMD if you

      • I've seen some *amazing* replies on SO that must have easily taken the programmer an hour or more to craft. The great thing is that answers of that quality tend to get voted up highly, and lots of people seem to point links to that page, so Google ranks it quite highly. This means that great answer is going to be what programmers find when searching for that particular topic, and I think that's absolutely fantastic.

        What's hilarious to me is when I get to a SO question, and you have the inevitable jerk tha

        • by jeremyp ( 130771 )

          I've seen some *amazing* replies on SO that must have easily taken the programmer an hour or more to craft. The great thing is that answers of that quality tend to get voted up highly, and lots of people seem to point links to that page, so Google ranks it quite highly.

          For a long while, my top rated answer on SO was this joke [].

          I have written one or two answers of which I am quite proud and that took me an hour or two to craft, but my current top rated answer by a mile is a two line snippet of code demonstrating how to split a string in Objective-C.

          What's hilarious to me is when I get to a SO question, and you have the inevitable jerk that tells the person asking the question to just "Google the answer". My inevitable thought is: how the hell do you think I got here, you self-righteous ass? I saw a great response from someone else as well, which was: "someone has to first answer the question before Google can link to an answer."

          Soon after I started posting, somebody added some code to the site that refused to allow any answers with embedded as a link. I was outraged for about five seconds.

  • by darkain ( 749283 ) on Monday November 23, 2015 @12:55PM (#50986013) Homepage

    For me, I use stack overflow for library related issues, not language related. Dealing with bullshit subtleties of things like jQuery, instead of fucking around for hours trying to figure out why a particular function has a weird ass edge case, someone else has already figured it out and documented it. It just so happens that said documentation is the comments within StackOverflow.

    • +1 I usually use it looking for explanation of bugs, or if I'm being stupid, not for whole solutions.

    • by Guybrush_T ( 980074 ) on Monday November 23, 2015 @02:05PM (#50986657)
      It is actually also a good source for language-related issues, good practices, often with links to relevant documentation. It is always good to discuss and share about programming and spread the knowledge. Whether readers will really try to understand or not is a different story and should really not be SO's fault. Whatever the way you spread programming-related information, there will always be some who just want to copy-paste it (and sometimes for good because their usage is not critical at all).
    • by jopsen ( 885607 )

      For me, I use stack overflow for library related issues, .....

      Yeah, or when working with some specification, and for some reason all other implementations does the wrong thing :)

  • Stack overrated (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday November 23, 2015 @12:56PM (#50986025)

    The best-rated answers aren't always the most effective or maintainable, but they do tend to be the ones that look neatest at first sight, and almost invariably are written by someone already with a high score.

    When I was a junior developer, I used to think that this this sort of thing demonstrated the hypothesis about most programmers being mediocre with a few stars. Now I learn that's it's just a small subset of people have a lot of time to spend answering cookie-cutter questions and know how to express confidence in their solution, and you get the Wikipedia effect where one bad answer has been given and suddenly everyone else is repeating it as gospel - not realising that it's because they all got the bad answer from Wikipedia/Stackoverflow/whatever peer-to-peer collaboration site is relevant to the field.

  • usenet lists (Score:5, Insightful)

    by tomhath ( 637240 ) on Monday November 23, 2015 @01:00PM (#50986045)

    The complaints remind me of the old usenet groups, especially C and perl programming. A few people appointed themselves to be the arbiters of what could be posted, and flamed anyone who didn't meet their personal standards.

    On the other hand, take away that moderation and the site quickly degenerates into what /. has become. Given the choice, I'll take StackOverflow the way it is.

    • by creimer ( 824291 )
      One poster on a Python list complained that my email address (first and middle name initials, last name) didn't match my signature block (first name, last name). Never mind that he went by a nickname that has absolutely nothing to do with his matching email address and signature block. I ended up re-subscribing to the list under a different email address. I'm surprised he didn't complain that I use a short variation of my first name.
    • Re:usenet lists (Score:5, Insightful)

      by dotancohen ( 1015143 ) on Monday November 23, 2015 @01:51PM (#50986529) Homepage

      The complaints remind me of the old usenet groups, especially C and perl programming.

      Even worse than that, one would expect the author's examples to actually illustrate his point, but the examples given are terrible questions that should in fact be closed by any objective measure. The problem is that the author wants to use emotion ("it's _my_ question") to keep his dupes open.

      For example, his "Does Stack Overflow have any way of preventing vote trolls" question was marked as a dupe of "How to react to unfair downvotes". Though superficially a related but distinct question, in fact his question is a request for clarification about the general case discussed in the question his was marked as a dupe of. People who engineer objective code will see this, people who copy and paste but do not understand why things work the way they do just won't see it, it's a left-brain vs. right-brain issue. So the system is self-filtering, that's fine.

      I remember how hard it was to get rep on ServerFault, the SO site for server admins. Any question that I asked I felt was downvoted or closed. Now that I understand the concepts, I understand why. And not understanding why but getting frustrated with the SF community helped me formulate better questions and propelled my knowledge. And when I do turn to SF now, I'm glad that newbies like I was are kept at bay and there is room for the real admins to discuss real admin problems.

  • My debugging tool is to paste the offending code in the Google search bar, hit return and see if anyone else has had the same error. And usually someone has. And Stack Overflow is usually near the top of the search results, though the quality of the answers in the search results vary.
  • by dmomo ( 256005 ) on Monday November 23, 2015 @01:17PM (#50986201)

    Duplicate questions are discouraged on the site. This is problematic because the accepted answer will remain the apparent authority even while languages evolve or APIs change. I see it happen a lot with jQuery, for instance.

    • by hattig ( 47930 )

      I have noticed this too.

      For example security related answers date really badly, and I'm sure we all agree that we don't want developers coming along and developing something around what was common practice five years ago (e.g., SHA-1). I think there needs to be some form of expiration that can be set, so that people can see that an answer, or full set of answers, is not to be trusted.

    • by halivar ( 535827 )

      By that same token, I have seen many out-of-date answers replaced in popularity by up-to-date answers. The system works pretty well from my experience.

    • Well, the guy giving the link to the older answer, and flagging the new one as duplicate, should be able to figure out by himself if the old answer is still valid.
  • The process of copying and pasting an incompletely or not at all understood solution isn't in any way new. Back in the early 90s one of my colleagues coined the term I've used ever since for this and related programming anti-methods: buckethead programming. The metaphor is of programming with a bucket over your head so you can't see what you're doing but instead just stagger in random directions until you accidentally bump into something that appears to work... at which point you leave it and stagger your w

    • Agreed. And while people might complain that it makes "buckethead programming" easier, the thing that's not stated is that it also makes it easier for good experienced programmers, which is a significantly better gain. After all, most of those "buckethead" newbies will eventually stop being such.

    • Buckethead programming was what we were told in college, "copy these few lines of code, get I2C to work! Bobs yer uncle!" No emphasis on understanding what a function does and its different uses. If you asked this lecturer something he would bluff his way around it, because he himself didn't know.
      • by mikael ( 484 )

        That was like computer algorithms class. The official recommended textbooks were the classics on algorithms; Sorting, Queuing, Multithreading with problems like the dining philosophers, going all the way up to how to do a discrete FFT transform. These were all recommended as *the* algorithms to use that "just worked", and it wasn't worth trying to design something faster.

    • I remember when the goto source was dejanews....

    • by jopsen ( 885607 )

      buckethead programming. The metaphor is of programming with a bucket over your head so you can't see what you're doing but instead just stagger in random directions until you accidentally bump into something that appears to work... at which point you leave it and stagger your way through the next obstacle that arises.

      I love this term and definition... thanks! :)

      Also while it is horrible, buckethead programming is sometimes a valid strategy... Need to write some static HTML UI for an internal API and you want to make it look pretty: buckethead programming the HTML, CSS and even some of the JS is a fast cheap and valid approach...

      If it's just a quick internal thing, there no reason to spend 2 days learning angular, react.js or some other framework. Just buckethead program that thing and stick your head in the sand.


  • by HeckRuler ( 1369601 ) on Monday November 23, 2015 @01:42PM (#50986427)

    Some critics believe that rather than truly struggling with a problem, developers can now just ask Stack Overflow users to solve it for them.

    Get a load of these guys. As if "struggling" should be applauded and praised. I understand that there's a certain skillset with generic problem solving. The first step is to consult the grand answer of questions, the google, and see if this is common knowledge. IF NOT, the second step should be to ask for specialized knowledge, which is where stack overflow (and more broadly, stack exchange) excels. Another great resource for that second step would be your co-workers, peers, or teacher. Because this is how you learn. After that, sure, it's a hard problem you actually need to develop something novel or drill down to the root problem.

    Hey, there is certainly variance when it comes to how tenacious people are. And it'd be great if people followed up the solution and figured out that "why" portion. But that doesn't mean we should snub those asking questions. You can lead a horse to water, etc.

    Do we REALLY want a billion people banging their head on a brick wall just trying to find out why their string needs to be null terminated? Can't we just tell them?

    (Also, it's a communally generated users-manual for WAY too many projects out there. MSDN sucks)

    • Can't we just tell them?

      Lord no, if you know information, you have power. You cannot just give your hard earned power away to just any pleeb that has the gumption to ask. Also:

      "Some critics believe that rather than truly struggling with a problem, developers can now just ask Stack Overflow users to solve it for them."

      Couldn't this also be extended to books? I mean, how are you truly learning anything if you can just pick up a book and read about how to solve a problem? These 'critics' are just obs
    • by Yunzil ( 181064 ) on Monday November 23, 2015 @02:08PM (#50986677) Homepage

      Get a load of these guys. As if "struggling" should be applauded and praised.

      Yeah. A lot of the time I don't even care to understand the answer because it's incidental to the underlying problem I'm trying to solve. If I'm trying to build a frobnicator and I'm getting hung up on some trivial little linker error, I could spend hours digging into the problem until I truly understand it, or I could check Stack Overflow and be on my way in 5 minutes.

    • by bradrum ( 1639141 ) on Monday November 23, 2015 @02:14PM (#50986729)

      Struggle up to a certain point. I had an algorithms professor who said, "spend 30 minutes on a problem", then when/if you get to a dead end after 30 minutes...
      Doesn't mean "don't try this problem because this looks hard". Do try, but don't run around in circles.

  • emacs shemacks (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday November 23, 2015 @01:43PM (#50986445)

    Emacs questions may be lacking because it has a dedicated stackexchange site of its own.

  • Hubris (Score:5, Interesting)

    by avandesande ( 143899 ) on Monday November 23, 2015 @01:50PM (#50986507) Journal

    "Others are worried about how Stack Overflow has impacted programming fundamentals. Some critics believe that rather than truly struggling with a problem, developers can now just ask Stack Overflow users to solve it for them"

    It's pretty rare that someone will discover on their own a better solution then a more experienced developer. I have learned quite a lot looking at other's solutions to a problem... in particular where the tool is not the best for the job.

    • I will agree about the tools sentiment. That is where I have picked up a ton useful stuff from Stackoverflow. Check out this tool or check this obscure piece of documentation.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday November 23, 2015 @02:14PM (#50986735)

    Still beats expert sex change.

  • Systems work is impacted by this style of quick fix answers as well. There's ServerFault, as well as vendor support forums and other sources. I love and hate these sorts of resources. They're great because they get fixes and workarounds out there far faster than official vendor support channels can. What they're awful for is providing half-working or potentially dangerous answers that look fine but may not apply at all to the problem at hand.

    You can say that the root cause of the problem is inexperienced sy

  • I've been using SE a lot recently. The languages I use a are a bit off the beaten path, and when I filter questions for those languages only, the degradation isn't visible. I can usually find the information I need, my questions get answered comprehensively and correctly, and answering other people's questions helps me hone my own skills. I wouldn't want to lose SE.

  • by seoras ( 147590 ) on Monday November 23, 2015 @04:28PM (#50988079)

    Yesterday there was a post titled "The History of SQL Injection, the Hack That Will Never Go Away ".
    Someone raised a good point that the problem was more economics than technology.
    Employers, with no clue about technology, "employing monkeys and paying them peanuts" to produce something that looks visually ok but hacked into existance underneath.

    We, programers, work in an unregulated profession which keeps it dynamic, fast paced and forever evolving.
    Regulation = stagnation
    So, yes, there's a lot of crap code out there and it won't go away - live with it.

    Without Stackoverflow years of man hours would be wasted struggling to figure out some problem that has already been solved by someone else.
    Wasn't that the idea behind the free software movement, not having to re-invent the wheel each time?
    What about re-debugging, re-attaching, the wheel each time?

    If the strength of our profession is in the fluidity, speed of adaptation and evolution then something like Stackoverflow is essential.
    If you really need the accreditation of a regulated profession then ask an interviewee for their Stackoverflow account to see what questions they've ask and answered.

    Stackoverflow is the best thing that's happened to our profession that I can remember in my 25 years as a programer.

  • by Forever Wondering ( 2506940 ) on Monday November 23, 2015 @09:49PM (#50990691)

    I've been posting/moderating slashdot for years, but just started with stack overflow. Here's my experience.

    I definitely agree with and have seen what the articles are driving at. In particular, the "The Decline of Stack Overflow" is absolutely 100% on the money.

    I answer questions. At least five / day. In a short time [about a month], I amassed 1000+ rep points. I'm now in the top 0.5% for the quarter. The article's comment about "SO hates new users" is true. Before I got to this point, I used to have more difficulty with certain people. As my point total got higher, the snark level went down. Ironic, because I was doing [trying to do] the best job I could at all times. My answers didn't change in terms of quality, just the tone of comments I got back.

    When I post an answer, I take several approaches. Sometimes, a simple "use this function instead" is enough. Sometimes, "change this line from blah1 to blah2". If the OP has made an honest effort to be clear, but the posted code is way off the mark (e.g. has more than two bugs), I'll download it clean it up for style [so I can see OP's logic before I try to fix it], fix the bugs [usually simplifying the logic] and post the complete solution with an explanation of the changes and annotations in code comments.

    This is the "cut-n-paste" solution. I may be just doing somebody's homework for them. But, usually, it's just somebody who spent days on the code and is "just stuck" [I've asked some OPs about this]. The controversy is that "if you do that, they'll never learn anything". Possibly. But, it's part of my judgement call on type of response to give. IMO, in addition to research and traditional classes/exercises, one of the best ways to learn is to read more advanced "expert" code. Compare one's original to what the expert did and ask "Why did they do it that way?!". This may foster more research on their part and they will have an "AHA! moment"

    Unlike slashdot, one can edit a post [either a question or an answer] and you can delete them. Comments can edited for five minutes and deleted anytime. Now this will seem goofy: If you comment back and forth with a given user over an answer one of you gave, either a collegial discussion or a flame war, eventually an automatic message comes up asking if you'd like to transfer your "discussion" to a chat page. Also, because comments are limited to 500 chars, I sometimes have to post a partial, incomplete answer because what I need to say needs better formatting/highlighting than a comment and wouldn't fit in a comment, even though it's more appropriate as a comment.

    The goofy thing is that you start with 1 rep point. You can post a question or a full answer. But, you can't yet post a comment!?

    On SO, people edit their questions and answers, based on feedback in the comments. The answer may be edited several times before questioner accepts it. Sometimes, for complex questions, it can take a day or two to come up with the right answer.

    Despite all this, once and a while, I get a "heckler" who doesn't like an answer [even though it's correct]. It goes several rounds in the comments, usually the other person doesn't understand the problem space enough to realize the answer was correct [or more subtle than they realized]. So, it goes back and forth, and each time I explain how I was correct, adding clarification or highlighting what I said originally. Eventually, the heckler says "Your answer doesn't answer the question". This is for an answer the OP questioner has "accepted" as the best one.

    I've seen reasonable questions downvoted within minutes [I upvote them back]. I've seen people threaten to close the question as unclear, requires opinion, or can _not_ be answered as described. The last one is funny, because the question is clear to me, and I provide a correct answer [that eventually gets upvoted and/or accepted]. Sometimes I send the commenter who is threatening doom a message [you can direct a comment to a specific user--like twitter] and say "Hey! The question can be answered--as is. Please see my posted answer".

    Because I have particular domain expertise, I tend to see some of the same people active on a question that I feel qualified to answer.

    Some are superb angels:
    - Always polite
    - Extreme kindness to newbies [even if the newbie "doesn't get it"]
    - Always provide a helpful and correct answer.
    - Plus, a ton of helpful comments, even when not posting a full answer.
    - Often, post a helpful comment, and come back with a full correct answer an hour later
    - May post a comment about how an answer was wrong. They're usually right--I've had this happen to me once or twice

    Some are what I'll call "keepers of the faith" or KOTFs:
    - They will comment "consult man page" [without explaining _which_ manpage].
    - Or [and this is popular], "please post an MCVE". An MCVE means [IIRC] "Minimally complete verifiable explanation" in SO jargon. This is even for questions that are already clear, concise, etc.
    - Note some "angels" will say "do MCVE" but the difference is tone: angels do it with love--and question is unclear. KOTFs stay polite but it comes off as abusive
    - The KOTF crowd camp on the SO moderation pages. They do direct moderation, but the pages operate mechanically more like slashdot's meta-moderation section.
    - The problem is that KOTFs will moderate based on form rather than domain expertise (e.g. a bash programmer moderating a question involving python)
    - They moderate question as "should be deleted" because the question didn't fit the MCVE requirement--or so they thought.
    - Because they don't have the domain expertise, they're not qualified to judge whether the question is clear to a person who is "skilled in the art" of the particular domain (e.g. unclear to bash person, perfectly clear to python person)
    - KOTFs also leap on the littlest missing char in OP's posted code, even when it's obvious that it's because SO's posting mechanism is to blame [SO uses markdown, and you have to indent four spaces before each line of code]. SO doesn't allow a direct uplink or clean paste like pastebin
    - Also, downvoting a question costs the downvoter only 2 rep points, so KOTFs can (and, unfortunately do) downvote quickly and frequently. Shoot first and ask questions later.
    - After downvoting, KOTFs are likely to start commenting on a page about MCVE, code is terrible, consult man page, why are you asking this.
    - For some, in separate comments as they gradually think of new things to snipe/carp about [*]

    [*] I saw this literally on a page that had the question upvoted to +5. Multiple commenters [myself included] were, using the comment system, helping OP to test/debug his code in real time (e.g. "try this", wait, "what result?", "okay, try this")--this is unusual, but not that unusual. We were "online" with OP for about two hours, before OP got so intimidated by the KOTF that he deleted the question page. Fortunately, OP had gotten enough hints from the angels, that he was able to find his problem, and he reposted his question next day with a completed answer.

    Frankly, even when I'm not the target of this, it can be difficult to watch. If the KOTF is genuinely wrong, I'll sometimes comment back to them directly, because it's clear their primary mission is to make OP feel as bad as possible. Doing so takes time/energy on my part that is better spent answering a question, but otherwise, KOTFs can run [and do] run amok. With the "online" example, I finally saw the KOTF, composed a message telling him to back off, but the page was deleted 10 seconds before I could send it.

    Still, overall, SO still works. But, it could use a facelift ... Ironically, younger programmers think that older ones can't learn new things. But, on SO it appears that the KOTF are younger programmers who started on SO early, amassing points over a multiyear period. But, because they've been there so long, they feel like "they know what's best" or know when a question [or answer] is "well formed" or not. Older programmers have come to the site more recently, so they're more circumspect. So, in this context, who's really the tired old man?!?!

    Most OPs try to post a good question. Sometimes, they're newbies, and need help to formulate it. Ignoring KOTF comments, others will ask for more specific information: post this, and this, and this. With the commenter's help, OP can edit the question enough that they can get a good answer back. Usually, they're more than willing.

    An expert answerer doesn't always [and frequently doesn't] need a perfect question to provide a good answer. So, if they're asking, it usually means that they or anybody else needs the info.

    However, some OPs do take offence at being asked to post more information, even if it's needed. Sometimes, a further explanation by commenter as to why they need more info gets OP over this. Sometimes, OPs drop the question at this point. I can only surmise this is due to ego crush, even when it's an angel asking. Some OPs do have a sense of entitlement that if they post a question, it should be answered--quick. They're also the hardest to get adequate info from.

    And, sometimes, it appears [to me, at least] that OP thinks the code they held back [even if not proprietary] is too "special" to "give away for free". They never say this outright, but, after several rounds of multiple commenters asking for additional info, that is not provided, what other conclusion does one draw? This is more likely to happen with newbie programmers or newbie SO posters (e.g. "I'm working on my first singly linked list implementation, but mine is going to be special and revolutionary for the world").

    So, I will continue to post answers. Yes, I do "work" for "points". But, I also, in addition to getting my answer "accepted" [worth points], I frequently get a comment from OP: "Thank you! Everything is now so clear". And, that, as much as anything else, is the reason to do it.

    It's what allows me to continue through the minefield of SO's version of "The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly" ...

All extremists should be taken out and shot.