Date raped by StackOverflow.com

by Ivan Hamilton 9/7/2008 2:27:00 PM

Falling in love with StackOverflow.com

I have been very interested by the idea of StackOverflow and have been listening to the podcasts with great enthusiasm. A place for programmers to get and receive answers. A place where good answers rise to the top. A place where the knowledgeable get the recognition.

I'm not naive, I've read the criticism, but it couldn't be that bad. There's always jerky naysayers around every endeavor. Although not really relevant to the site's development, I was seriously concerned (shocked actually) when Jeff Atwood suggested NOLOCK as an answer to a SQL locking problem... without even understanding the root cause. Was it a sign?

A couple of days ago I got my beta invite. I was so excited. This early in its life, the site would contain only those truly devoted to IT knowledge. Awesome!

I jumped in and looked around for a topic that I know well enough to give answers on. I found a question on C#, something I know moderately well.

Question #1: C# Language Syntax - Control Flow

The top rated answer had nearly 10 times the votes as any other answer, a pure winner... and was plain wrong. It confidently made a statement, that was simply incorrect. The second top answer was... just confused. It stated incorrect facts about an aspect of the question that weren't even relevant.

I posted a "correct" answer... but without any up-votes, it disappeared into the obscurity of the bottom of the page. And let's face it, when was the last time you looked at the second page on Google?

OK, it's only one crappy question & answer. It was time to find a better question.

Question 2#: C# Language Feature - Variance

OK, even more my style. So much so, I've even previously posted here on variance in C#.

So, let's... oh shit. The top rated answer... wrong. Oh crap, the question's author has even selected it as the "accepted answer". In fact, its opening statement doesn't even make sense. The only relevant word it uses, is the exact opposite of what the question is asking about... and it's used... vaguely. How does this answer have 5 times the votes of the first accurate answer? The next top answer is off-track and doesn't answer the question, merely repeating something about the question that the author already knows.

It's just bad luck... I've picked 2 bad examples. A third... I should try a third. Jokes always reveal themselves at the third item.

Question 3#: C# Date Algorithm

Hey... this one was asked by Jeff Atwood himself. He wouldn't... shit. The top answer is nice, highly up-voted, but contains a serious implementation flaw. Not one that you'd get bitten by very often, but it shows that people aren't exhibiting much skill or care.

I can't take any more.

Falling out of love with StackOverflow.com

My new friend Christie said the other day: "Half the people in this world are below average." It really struck a chord (just not the "this world" part). What's important here is that half of the anything in anything are below average (well, below median technically, unless it has a symmetric distribution). Half the practicing brain surgeons are below average. Scary huh?

Half the developers that visit StackOverflow are below average. But, they can influence the "value" of answers, and herein lies the problem. Charlie once said "ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge". It appears that those who are least capable of making accurate judgments on the value & accuracy of responses at StackOverflow, are the ones doing so the most. And that generates a lot of noise. Or so I thought...

But it's not noise. Back in the day, it was much easier for someone to say (and think): "The earth is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise". It's something they can somewhat understand, and from their perspective it sounds valid enough. It's also means they don't have to accept that they don't really know the basics of the topic. And there's also confirmation bias - people expect answers that match their prior beliefs. Would someone accept the belief "The earth has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium" when that's something they've never experienced, and it would mean accepting that they don't know anything about it?

Years ago I read a novel research paper on what's now referred to as the Dunning-Kruger effect. If you want to understand a little more about the below average half, read this. But the key tenets are:

  1. Incompetent individuals tend to overestimate their own level of skill.
  2. Incompetent individuals fail to recognize genuine skill in others.

What happens when you give them them power to vote? Self appreciating chaos.

These answers are not being up-voted at random. They're selected because those are the answers that appeal to this relatively unskilled group. And what answers appeal to a below average group? Fairly simple answers, with a bit of techno-babble just beyond their full reach. They rely on existing ideas and buzzword recognition, without trying to understand any of the more thorough responses that might make them feel intimidated. Who writes such vague, inaccurate & terrible responses? A member of the same group.

These incorrect, inaccurate and often unintelligible "answers" go rocketing up the charts. Later attempts to get correct information included are doomed to obscurity, being dwarfed by the popularity of the initial wank-fest of mediocrity.

Devoid of any accuracy-based-recognition, it's just popularity driven by popularity - much like I remember high school.

Follow Up:  StackOverflow.com - Don't hate the player, hate the game

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