By Chris Oldwood

Overload, 28(158):24, August 2020

Mind your language! Chris Oldwood recounts a Stack Overflow comment that got him thinking.

When Stack Overflow sprang up way back in mid-2008 it seemed like a game changer for the industry. Even for someone like me who had already earned a few stripes as a programmer by struggling with the craft through the use of product documentation, journals, books, web sites, CIS & CiX forums, etc. I found much to like about the innovative format as it promised to raise the signal-to-noise ratio to much higher levels. At that time I was also making the switch from a career spent entirely in the native world to the managed one of .NET, so felt I would be in a good position to provide help to those new to the place I was leaving behind while drawing on the expertise of those already ahead of me on the path to my new destination.

Of course, I didn’t reckon on the volume of people out there who also appeared eager to help out but apparently didn’t need to either eat or sleep! I was never expecting to reach the dizzying heights of ‘reputation’ achieved by the likes of Stack Overflow’s most famous respondent – Jon Skeet – but I felt chalking up a few answers would at least give me something else to raise my profile and give any potential future employers one more reason to prefer me over someone else.

It’s funny how things work out. It’s now over 10 years since I joined and yet I’m still to reach even the 1,000 mark. Consequently, it’s rare I visit the site and get a notification saying I’ve earned some more points or received a comment to one of my answers. Hence when I visited recently and found a little badge on my inbox, I was expecting good news; I never for a moment expected a comment from someone suggesting that one of my answers was incredibly condescending and that I was blaming the questioner for their own predicament.

Being a programmer with a bit of mileage, I probably don’t google things much less frequently than anyone else but years of skim reading articles, blog posts, and forum messages has meant that I’ve found it easy to skip over the ‘noise’ and focus on whether or not the answer is likely to be of interest. As a consequence, I’ve become ignorant of the kinds of problems that have caused a number of people to suggest that Q&A sites like Stack Overflow are not as welcoming or as helpful as they purport to be. Given their reliance on contributions from the general public, such as myself, that means some portion of the blame almost certainly lies with the attitudes of us programmers who have chosen to offer our time and expertise to help others out. In more recent years, I’ve made a conscious effort to try and learn more about the subtle ways that people denigrate others, so I was unprepared to discover that I might have ended up on the wrong side of the tracks.

It’s all too easy when challenged to go on the defensive and find ways to brush off the accuser as someone who’s clearly made no effort to understand what you’ve said and just needs to ‘get over themselves’. The somewhat passive-aggressive nature of the comment didn’t really encourage me to immediately take the issue seriously whereas the apparent ‘injustice’ did mean I felt the need to investigate further. I followed the notification, which (curiously) had taken 9 months to deliver, and re-read whatever it was I said back in 2010 that had caused offence [Oldwood10]:

You don’t mention what language you’re using but there is no hidden setting that hides errors per se, other than the compiler giving up after it has encountered a gazillion issues (Visual C++). It has decided that there is so much wrong with the code that it’s not going to waste even more time telling you stuff that you’re just going to ignore. Classic examples of this are caused by missing braces and parenthesis, or botched #include guards etc.

My gut reaction was that ‘2010 me’ was probably trying to be light-hearted or sarcastic but ‘2020 me’ was somewhat appalled that I had not spotted the obvious potential for misunderstanding. But it was just a misunderstanding, right? I want to believe there was no intention of malice on my part – that I was suggesting the tool was at fault, not the operator – but I also can’t deny that I haven’t overused sarcasm in the past and stepped over the mark once or twice. My hope is that while ‘2010 me’ might have been better at judging the mood in person, I clearly still had a lot to learn back then about the written word and personal responsibility.

Hemingway said that “the only kind of writing is rewriting” and ‘2020 me’ is beginning to understand that more and more. While my younger self may have been satisfied to simply avoid spelling and grammatical mistakes, my older self is slowly becoming more aware of the ways in which language can be used by a writer to insult certain kinds of reader. I realize it falls on my shoulders to be wise to this and ensure that if my intent is not to be misinterpreted then I should steer clear of those devices.

I toyed briefly with deleting my answer as it turned out in the end to be totally irrelevant to the question and I’m not entirely sure what I said was even correct. Instead I decided not to hide my embarrassment and so I rewrote the answer using ‘2020 me’ to keep the gist but hopefully place the emphasis on the limitations of the tool rather than the programmer using it. I also added a short apology too, to make it clear I was not hiding anything by rewriting it after the fact. This, I hope, also ensures the comment calling my answer out as inappropriate does not look out of place either. And, while a tiny part of me feels their tone was somewhat inappropriate too, ‘2020 me’ accepts that negativity is not best handled with yet more negativity; instead I can thank them for giving me the catalyst to review my past attempt and revise it so that no one else has to feel uncomfortable in the future.

The question I now find myself asking is if this was an isolated moment of naivety or do I need to go back and check what else I’ve written in public, and if so, how far back? The answer, for me, I feel is ‘yes’, although I know I’m lucky enough not to have that much to look over specifically in Stack Overflow. I have since found a few of my earlier blog posts that use terms which my current self would never consider appropriate, not because they are in any way nasty, more that I think I’ve found better terms that I hope has made my subsequent writing more accessible.

I’m in no doubt that feedback from both friends and reviewers at ACCU over the last 10 years has had a significant impact in changing my view on the importance of the written word and this incident continues to confirm my suspicion that whether it be code or prose, it always suffers when I’m left to my own devices.



Chris Oldwood is a freelance programmer who started out as a bedroom coder in the 80’s writing assembler on 8-bit micros. These days it’s enterprise grade technology from the lounge below his bedroom. With no Godmanchester duck race to commentate on this year, he’s been even more easily distracted.

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