''Be Nice'' Gets Madeover
What's in the new Stack Overflow Code of Conduct to help new contributors feel more welcome? Take ''Be Nice'' a step further in this article.
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This week, I received an email about the new code of conduct, which applies to Stack Overflow and the Stack Exchange network, and applies to anyone posting to those sites, including the Stack Overflow team and moderators across the Stack Exchange network.
To replace the previous “Be nice” policy, the Stack Exchange community has come together to agree a more formal code that commits members to show mutual respect and kindness to ensure that everyone on the site feels welcome and safe, regardless of who they are or how much they know.
The email called out some highlights, and the code of conduct itself is very short and unambiguous. Regardless, I’ll summarize it here, because I think it is worth keeping in mind as a guide to behavior on all online sites. It’s split into a few sections: expectations, unacceptable behavior, reporting, and enforcement. Or, as the Stack Overflow blog post about the new code describes it, “Be nice, here’s how, here’s why, and here’s what to do if someone isn’t.”
The original code of conduct of Stack Overflow was simply “Be nice.” The new code is based upon it, but expanded to be more explicit both for those answering questions, and those asking them.
If you are there to help others by commenting, you are expected to be patient and welcoming, while if you’re asking a question, you are reminded of the posting guidelines, to ensure that you help others to help you. If you initiate or join a discussion on the site, you need to be open to receiving comments and suggestions, but equally, the expectation is that what you receive is constructive and kind rather than hostile.
The code of conduct gives some great comparisons of friendly and unfriendly comments to illustrate harmful behavior. I think we’ve all seen “You could Google this in 5 seconds” posted on an online forum somewhere (and we’ve probably all thought it in response to some posts). There are more friendly ways to answer the most basic of questions, including summarising what you should search for on Google, or pointing to an FAQ that answers the query. Too many people have reported that they are put off after their first question, because they are told condescendingly that the way they’ve asked it is "wrong."
Here’s What to Do if Someone Isn’t Nice
While it is likely that the majority of contributors to the Stack Exchange network have the best intentions at heart, where unacceptable or harmful behavior occurs, you are encouraged to flag it up. Besides basic snark and unfriendliness to new posters, unacceptable behavior includes anything that could be seen as name-calling, personal attacks, bigotry or harassment of any kind.
Stack Overflow has an enforcement process to ensure that reports are taken seriously and dealt with by the moderators, and most are simply taken down and a warning issued to the user in question. In more serious cases or where poor behavior is repeated, an account may be suspended or even permanently excluded.
The Culture of Stack Overflow and Other Expert Communities
Stack Overflow turns ten next month, and at the time of writing, August 2018, it has over 9 million registered users and 16 million questions. If you haven’t already read Joel Spolsky’s blog post about how it came about, I thoroughly recommend it.
There have been criticisms in recent years of the culture of the community, much as there are for many, large collaborative online sites like Wikipedia and Reddit. While you’re over on Joel’s blog, it’s worth taking a look at another of his blog posts, which describes his own concerns about the site being unwelcoming to newcomers. He describes the “rudeness, snark, or condescension that newcomers often see” as being “...actively harmful to people, to society, and to Stack Overflow itself, by driving away potential future contributors.”
My own experience, not on Stack Overflow, but on company-internal programming communities, is that beginners always find it hard. The first post is the hardest, and everything you write feels like you should review it ten-fold before you post. When I was a newbie, everything seemed to be scrutinized and picked to pieces as soon as I hit “Submit.” It is unhelpful and unpleasant.
My experience in online programming communities dates back some 20 years, and what I observed at the time was that, if those that received a rough time when they first joined the community stuck around, they later started to adopt the same unhelpful behavior towards other newcomers. A typical bullied-becomes-bully mentality, which was singularly depressing. The first generation of domain experts set the tone of discussions, and didn’t step in sufficiently to correct poor behavior when it first surfaced, or later when their snark was mirrored by those that followed them.
I hope we have come a long way since those times. With this new code of conduct on Stack Overflow, and its accompanying reporting/enforcement process, perhaps we will see even more responsibility within a vital expert community towards a new generation of developer, leading to a more inclusive experience overall.
In the meantime, here on DZone, we are all friendly, right? I’m going to make a special effort this month to leave appreciative comments on the articles I read and enjoy, and questions when I want to follow up for more information.
It’s fine to keep on hitting “Like”, but nothing builds community better than helpful, friendly discussion. Let’s get it started! Hit me up in the comments!
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