The Bane of Stack Overflow

Stack Overflow is the best development resource online. I want to get that out of the way so that I sound reasonably constructive, rather than critical.

Here’s a portrayal of what a fairly well-answered question on SO looks like:

How do I … in language …?


  1. Stack Overflow accepted answer checkmark (Top-rated response, usually well-written and really good)

  2. (Good response)

  3. (Acceptable response)

  4. You should …. (poor/irrelevant advice)

  5. I’ve always found that … (poor/irrelevant advice)

  6. I think the best way … (poor/irrelevant advice)

This works well because the best response is front row centre, and hard to miss. There will be a large set of poor answers, but that’s a given, this is the Internet after all! The important part is that the poor responses get muscled out by the good ones and move out of sight.

The problem only really establishes itself on a less-popular and more difficult question:

What is the best practice for …?


  1. You should …. (poor/irrelevant advice)

  2. I’ve always found that … (poor/irrelevant advice)

Karma on SO is a valuable resource, far moreso than most other social sites online, and just for that reason people will spend more time and effort acquiring it.

Unfortunately, like anywhere else on the Internet, most people are not informed well enough to comment on a subject as an authority. The difference on SO is that uninformed karma fishers know that to extract the sweet karma that they so crave, they need to make themselves sound like a real authority.

The problem is compounded because of SO’s high-level userbase. These karma fishers are usually articulate and their answers sound reasonable. They don’t go so far as to deceive themselves into thinking their answers are legitimate, but they’ve discovered that every so often these pot shots will pay off so they’re happy to provide answers that they hope will be close enough.

My suggestion for a fix would be to make it more obvious when a question has not been answered to the OP’s satisfaction. The green checkmark is already a good indicator, but its absence might not be noticed on some question to users who aren’t regulars.

That said, the system works, and SO is still the best development resource online.

Posted on July 19, 2010 from Calgary


My name is Brandur. I'm a polyglot software engineer and part-time designer working at Heroku in San Francisco, California. I'm a Canadian expat. My name is Icelandic. Drop me a line at

Aside from technology, I'm interested in energy and how it relates to our society, travel, longboarding, muay thai, symphonic metal, and the guitar.

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