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A really helpful blog post about Stack Overflow editing that you need to read
Categories: Tech misc

I have lately been editing questions on Stack Overflow quite a bit. It’s my equivalent of doodling on a notepad, or idly completing a crossword: editing is my little non-taxing pastime that benefits future readers and helps illustrate the community’s desire for post authors to put some effort into their posts.

Over the years, I have occasionally received an email, a blog comment or a Stack Overflow comment from a new member, saying that an edit I made was helpful in clarifying their problem, and they would henceforth use better titles, correct case, better spelling, paragraph breaks, or whatever other improvement.

However, a small number of folks whose posts I have edited are moved to such significant disgruntlement that they seek out my blog, and send a complaint by blog comment or email. If this applies to you, dear reader, please make use of this advice, so that your first message to me is constructive.

All abuse is reported

Let’s get this out of the way: no-one should experience abuse on the internet. It’s a complex area, to be sure, and I am sometimes wary of governmental or legislative solutions, as they are prone to misuse and over-reach. I am especially cynical about state-led initiatives to capture the control of social media under the guise of preventing bullying.

But, as far as Stack Overflow goes, I think they handle this area very well: they have a Community Team willing to receive reports of abuse, and their remit extends to off-platform abuse too.

I should note also that I am fairly robust, and the paradox for folks who send me the vilest messages, is that the nastier they are, the less likely they are to bother me. If I had a way to reply to the casual homophobia and swaggering alt-right toxicity of “James <dickin@yourass.com>”, I might inquire as to whether this sort of approach has ever resulted in a constructive exchange for him:

For someone that spends all their time on stackoverflow pissing people off (pretty sad life btw) it’s quite pathetic to see your website. Clearly a masterpiece. I mean, it’s got great font choices, vast array of colors, and amazingly user-friendly menu – I was being sarcastic there btw. Someone that claims to have the expertise you supposedly do, surely you’d not use wordpress.

My main gripe with you, is how you behave on stackoverflow, it’s people like you that make it so extremely toxic and such a terrible platform. Stop being such a cuck and let people enjoy using it for what it is without you trolling around unnecessarily editting peoples answers – I just picture a man-child sat in his mothers basement with little to no education, without a job, and gets enjoyment (somehow) out of editting peoples answers. It’s a really sad existence.

Stuff like that is always sent to the Community Team with timestamps and IP addresses. If you’re tempted to burn your bridges even before you’ve checked whether I am open to a fruitful discussion, just don’t.

Abusive emails are extracted so that full SMTP headers are included, and are forwarded to the CT in the same way.

Editing is part of the platform

A few of the complaints I receive are essentially demands that questions belonging to a particular user should not edited, at all, by anyone. This is not a reasonable request. All posts are editable by everyone; this is baked into the platform, and is explicitly allowed by the licensing conditions that all members sign up to.

Occasionally I am met with retaliatory edits on my own material. Trying to annoy someone with edits is never a good motivation for editing, and moderators are pretty good at spotting this sort of thing. I’ve edited posts belonging to thousands of people, and on the rare occasions they are disputed, my version is frequently allowed to stand.

Where folks have edited my posts and their edits are good, I am happy to let them be. Unfortunately, on the few occasions I have experienced retaliatory activity, it has been from folks with poor English, and their changes had to be rolled back.

Understand why we edit

In general, questions may be edited to apply formatting, improve spelling, split up wall-of-text paragraphs, fix case, tweak grammar, trim chatty material, repair code presentation, and so forth. All of these things are helpful as they will make life easier for people who read your material in the future.

It is a good idea to read some of the guidelines on Meta Stack Overflow, so you are aware of specific guidelines and the conversations that have already been had:

You are not your post

Some folks take edits to their material as a direct attack on their core being; they should not, but I sympathise when they do.

This phenomenon is similar to an engineer taking criticism badly in a code review – while there is certainly a non-optimal ways to deliver technical criticism, the unpleasant fact of life is that if we want people to learn, code reviews are going to have to contain criticisms. In the same way, edits to peoples’ material is going to carry the implication their post would be better in the new way, and that’s fine.

I’m a listener, and I try to be reasonable

Editing is a substantial power, and I try to use it with responsibility. If you are not happy with an edit I have made, ping me under the post in question, and set out why you think it was a bad edit. It is not a well-known feature of Stack Overflow that post editors can be pinged with @username (although note that auto-complete is not available in this situation – use copy+paste instead).

If you are sure that my edit changed your technical meaning, then go ahead and roll it back, merging any changes that can be justified. I’d request that you ping me anyway, so I can see the new version.

If you have sufficient reputation, feel free to invite me to a Stack Overflow chat session. Note that this is public, and site moderation applies here just as much as on the main site.

Where people add thoughtful or interesting objections to my editing, I will try to respond as helpfully as I can, and in the spirit of give-and-take. There is a bit of a blurry line here – we try to “respect the author”, but that does not mean that authors can insist on anything at all.

Use the Meta site

If you are not willing to approach me, but still want a complaint to be heard, then you could explain the edit on Meta Stack Overflow and ask for feedback on why you are unhappy. It is a good idea to be sure of your case before you do that, though, as the community tends not to be particularly forgiving of users who are thought to be complaining unreasonably.

I have had some discussions on Meta go the way I wanted, and some not go the way I wanted. Be willing for either to happen in your case. If the community disagrees with your view, please try to respect that.

Flag for moderators

If you want a third party to look at your case privately, raise a custom flag for a moderator. Explain in detail why you are unhappy, and they will get back to you. Bear in mind that if your own conduct is not exemplary, you may get short shrift. For example, if you have added insulting material in comments, this will be noticed by moderators, even if you have subsequently deleted them.

It probably isn’t all that important

Some of the complaints I have received over the years are off-the-scale furious, and my earnest advice in this case is: it’s just a website, and it’s probably not all that important. I think it is nice for questions to be readable and to follow the posting guidelines, and although not everyone agrees with that, if Stack Overflow turned off the servers tomorrow, we’d all cope.

Sure, I’d have to get a new brain-pause hobby, and you’d have to find somewhere else to write your posts, but the world would still keep turning.

So, if you’re hopping mad, count to ten. Write out a message about what you’re unhappy about, and then remove stuff that’s obviously insulting or looking to cause emotional injury. Then, scan it again, and remove anything that is passive-aggressive, petty or needling. Then, if there’s anything left, make sure it reads like you’re as open-minded as you would like me to be. Add some smiley emoticons.

Of course, I shouldn’t need to give this advice to reasonably educated adults, but my inbox occasionally suggests otherwise.

Conclusion

It has its flaws, but Stack Overflow is currently one the best free resources on the web for helping programmers, and no other organisation comes close. I’m impressed with the product and the company that runs it, to the degree that I’m moved to donate significant volunteer resource to making it better. I write useful questions, I give helpful answers, I edit posts, I add comments, I collaborate in chat rooms, all with the underlying aim of “paying it forward”.

So, I encourage folks wanting to offer feedback to me, to do so in the same vein – do what is best for the community, argue patiently and respectfully, and pick your battles wisely.

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