Tuesday, July 7, 2009

StackOverflow Overflows My Stack

StackOverflow is a pretty neat idea for a web site. It's one of those forums where you ask a question and others answer, and this one is particularly for questions about programming. They really put a lot of thought into it to make this a useful resource for programmers. I recommend watching the presentation that creator Joel Spolsky gave at Google about this, just to learn about the sort of thoughts that went into creating a modern, useful web site.

Except the whole thing is pretty much completely useless to me. Here is why. In order to contribute to StackOverflow, you answer questions that others have posted, and you can vote on answers. There is a slightly sophisticated system behind this that will ultimately establish one or two authoritative answers on a particular question, and then everyone is happy. So the first approach to contributing may be finding unanswered questions. That's easy, it's linked right from the home page: http://stackoverflow.com/unanswered. Now in order to find questions that matter to you, or that you might have some knowledge about, all the questions are tagged. Tags might be javascript, sql, vb.net, and so on. So someone like me might go to http://stackoverflow.com/questions/tagged/postgresql. But this will include all questions ever asked about PostgreSQL. To actually hang out and contribute on occasion, I would like to have all unanswered questions for a tag or set of tags, right? No problem, go to http://stackoverflow.com/unanswered/tagged/postgresql; this link has the tool tip "show unanswered questions tagged 'postgresql'". Except this doesn't work; it shows all unanswered questions, ignoring the tag.

I was confused about this for a while, and couldn't really work with the site because of it. But the design of the site is so clear that it was almost impossible that I misunderstood the intents of the various pages, and so I decided that I was at the right URL and the results were wrong. Must be a bug.

At the time, the feedback link on the StackOverflow site led to http://stackoverflow.uservoice.com/. And sure enough, if you search for "unanswered tagged", you get about 11 essentially duplicate results, one of which is claimed to be "completed", and nine of which are "declined" with comments such as "make sure you are on the right tab", "you are on the wrong tab, look again" and "I am on the unanswered questions tab. It is still broken."

Sometime within the last two weeks they must have switched their feedback forum to themselves, at http://meta.stackoverflow.com/. And sure enough, the same complaints have reappeared: http://meta.stackoverflow.com/search?q=unanswered+tagged.

What's so puzzling about this to me is that on a site that had put so much thought into usability, exactly the only one feature that I wanted to use doesn't work, in spite of obviously having been designed in. And I suppose if you can show unanswered questions and tagged questions, you should be able to show unanswered tagged questions without too much trouble. Which just shows that many people must have many different workflows, and there will be many solutions to satisfy them all. See you later, StackOverflow.

(picture by nicolasnova CC-BY)


  1. +1 very frustrating. Anyone got a solution? lol.

  2. Ok solved. It's pretty stupid though.
    When you click on Unanswered, make sure that on the right hand site that "My Tags" is not selected - that seems to break it. Instead click on "newest", at which point you can click on tags to see what we want to see...

  3. I'm not sure that does it. That only lists the newest questions for a particular tag, which are more likely to be unanswered, but it doesn't show only unanswered questions. It's a helpful workaround though.

  4. I find SO useless because of this system to, only in a different aspect. People try to contribute and while doing so, they will just give you an MSDN link as an answer without exploring the question. Most of the time I feel like my questions are not being read. It's fine to provide an msdn link if appropriate but if I am asking a specific question, I would rather hear peoples actual experiences.

  5. Then don't mark the question as answered- problem solved? People will only vote it up if it is good quality - at least, thats' the idea...

  6. @Antony, The problem is that even if you do not mark a question answered, it still shows up as answered. Many people will not even look at your question now, thinking it as been answered.

    It was good in the beginning, but now it's beginning to fill with riffraff, morons, and rep whores. You should have heard all the people crying when they re-factored the reps. Such whores.

    About the only thing it's good for now is looking for decent answers.

  7. Did you try http://stackoverflow.com/unanswered/tagged/postgresql