The Stack Overflow Antipattern, part 2

I enjoyed Riggraz’s observation of “The Stack Overflow Antipattern”, and it made me think of another very similar pattern that I see a lot on Stack Overflow, but it occurs after the pattern that Riccardo describes, and I thought I’d outline that here.

Image by wal_172619 from Pixabay

I answer a lot of questions on Stack Overflow. I ask very few, but I’ve still fallen into this trap myself.

Once you’ve been through Riccardo’s antipattern (ignoring the other antipattern of those that don’t even make it to step 1), you are here:

  1. You’ve searched and found some random results
  2. You’ve read some SO questions that were in those results
  3. You’ve still not found a solution

If you’ve got this far, the breadth of the question you want answering has probably been narrowed a little (which helps in its own right: searching is a mild form of rubber ducking), and probably contains the basis of a worthwhile Stack Overflow question.

So you focus on the problem, write it up, and (assuming this rubber-duck exercise didn’t lead you to a solution) post the question, and answers and comments appear reasonably quickly (hey, Stack Overflow rocks!). But often these responses are bogus, half-answers, or raise further questions. It’s at this point that we see the same “not taking the time to think” that Riccardo observed. You are so focused on the original question, you become incapable of solving a far simpler follow-on question.

Here’s a small example I often see:

“I’ve seen docs and code referring to autoload.php, but I can’t find that file”

Searching for autoload.php will find a zillion irrelevant results, because pretty much every PHP project in existence has one. So the question is posted on SO. There is a simple answer to this question, which is

“install composer, run `composer install`, and it will create the autoload.php file for you”

This inevitably leads to the follow-on question:

how do I install composer?”.

This is a new sub-problem, but one that is instantly solvable by searching because it’s far less ambiguous. However, this is where the abdication of thinking kicks in, and rather than actually doing that search, you ask in the SO question comments, and sit around waiting for an answer from Someone Who Knows™ that posted an answer to the original question. This is frustrating for the answerer, who knows that the asker could find the answer to this question far faster by searching for themselves, but they choose not to because their thinking is turned off. There’s also an element of panic – the asker has obtained the attention of someone capable of understanding their problem, and doesn’t want them to escape before they have addressed the full recursive stack of sub-problems. This has led to the existence of passive-aggressive responses like LMGTFY, which are demeaning and condescending, but reflect the frustrations of those who answer questions.

What’s weirder is that I have observed myself doing this very thing, and I’ve sometimes had to stop myself posting trivial follow-up questions without thinking. Avoiding having to think is evidently a compelling driver.

I emailed Riccardo about his article with some of the thoughts that led me to write this, and he came back with another interesting observation: This loss of confidence that leads one to post trivial follow-up questions is very much like imposter syndrome. Having had to ask a question in the first place can provoke feelings of embarrassment or inadequacy, and anyone that responds in a positive way will appear to be in some way superior, which is fully expected, but at the same time provokes feelings of “we’re not worthy”, further reducing one’s confidence to be able to deal with even simple problems.

We’re not worthy

I know that Stack Overflow (and GitHub issues) can sometimes be harsh on new users, and old hands (like me) can forget what it’s like to be a beginner. It can be very frustrating to answer questions that have been answered many times before (“my PHP script just gives a white screen”), and I’ve occasionally found myself editing my initial reaction to avoid unkindness. In those situations I usually try to overcompensate by offering more general advice about how to avoid getting stuck in dead-end situations like that, rather than just answering the precise question asked.

In PHPMailer I have tried to head off support questions before they arise by adding links to documentation in error messages, but it doesn’t stop people posting questions like this:

I have this error:
> 2020-05-16 07:28:11 SMTP connect() failed.
> https://github.com/PHPMailer/PHPMailer/wiki/Troubleshooting

I have been stuck on this for 2 weeks, and I searched the entire internet three times
Where can I find out how to fix it? You must help me urgently!

I don’t really know what to do when faced with this. Posting a substantive answer is probably pointless – if they have not read what’s right in front of them despite their evident frustration, chances are they will not read any answer you post either, especially since it will only contain exactly what’s in the link provided anyway. Sometimes the best thing to do is vote to close the question, usually as an inevitable duplicate. I see very similar things happening in GitHub issue templates – askers delete the boilerplate text, removing something which would usually help them solve their exact problem in a few seconds, but they go out of their way to make the process take longer and involve others unnecessarily, because apparently not having to think is a more attractive proposition.

I’ve also considered pushing in the other direction, such as by adding “delete this line from the debug output before posting questions about it, or your question will be ignored” as a way of enforcing reading the error messages, but that’s unkind.

I’m not sure how to address the abdication of thinking issue though. Perhaps offer up search results derived from comments or answers, much in the same way that Stack Overflow does when you first post a question? There are probably extensive psychological studies on this pattern of behaviour, and it may well have a name, but that’s a question for another Stack Exchange site.

4 Replies to “The Stack Overflow Antipattern, part 2”

  1. I agree that some people are getting used to copy ready solutions too much. However the cause is not in their willingness to develop faster but in market needs. In most companies you cannot afford extra time to work on your ideas and in 99.9% of times those private solutions need to be polished to improve code quality, service all cases, perform refactoring which costs too much. In addition, in country like mine, most companies don’t bother about personal projects on e.g. GitHub like they care about “commercial experience”. So even if you would develop your own solutions, you still wound’t be noticed 😀

  2. I fully appreciate how you feel about the issues that you described in this post. But may I just point out that some people may not be able to understand some answers or wikis? There are multiple reasons why people may panic when reading some answers, but one in particular feels strongest.

    English may not be the reader’s strong language. It’s hard to imagine how it feels to have to read documentation or technical answers in a language that one hasn’t mastered yet. I remember how I first learned the word “array” in university, and how ambiguous it was to me and my colleagues. It took me years until I stumbled upon a piece of news about a “solar cells array”, at which point I realised that the word has an actual meaning and is not just programming jargon! For some, that carefully crafted documentation is a work of art, but one that may be above their level of comprehension.

    Another reason is simply lack of knowledge. “Install composer”, the answer said. Is this a magic keyword? A special application? Am I meant to install it on my system or as a library or on the server? I’m only trying to follow a tutorial to write a blog. Is “composer” part of the blog? Is it a plugin for WordPress?

    I fully understand how you feel when you get a question like “how do I install composer?” – you’ve been kind enough to offer your time and expert advice, and the asker doesn’t know the basics. But, sometimes, the asker really spent hours that they could hardly afford to just get some (supposedly simple) software up and running. They are stressed and they don’t know what to do.

    Now that I think about it, perhaps install [composer](getcomposer.org/) could’ve been more helpful.

    I’d like to clarify that I fully understand your point and I agree with you, but I’m hoping that these words may make you less frustrated when you have to deal with such a situation.

  3. People like the one in your PHPMailer example will probably never learn. They are eternally stuck in the delusion that they’re somehow entitled to 24/7 premium support (as in “Write my code for me”) and that it should of course come for free, because that’s what “open source” is. I put them in the same bucket with the “Can you do it for free, it will be great exposure coz I have X followers on Instagramm” crowd.

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