Choosing between this site and StackOverflow for posting a question

I know that feel bro.

I've been shamed for asking stupid questions on SO before and was getting into negative scores. The struggle is real.

For example, I still don't have enough reputation to comment on others' answers, which for example prevents me from solving an existing blogdown issue because I can't comment on @yihui's solution in the thread, and my post to address the same issue in that question was deleted by a moderator and got negative reputation... (And guess what - if I create a separate question - I bet I'll get dinged for that too. You just can't win!)

Even still, I never felt discouraged by it though and never stopped looking up solutions online.

Also, if you're new to the topic and can't find an answer to your question on SO, there is a decent chance you're either not searching right, or asking the wrong question. I suspect that the amount of unique questions that haven't been asked and have no alternatives is somewhat small...

Thanks, I agree with your points and use SO more productively these days, mostly as an answerer and savvier searcher.

(Fyi: I fudged the numbers by browsing my SO profile wrong; but have edited my post to fix.)

@jennybryan's is easily one of my most visited and recommended sites, because Github can be terrifying - but it doesn't have to be.


You should have the privilege to comment anywhere on SO now. I just upvoted one of your own Q&A's, so you have got 50 points. I think the person who deleted your answer on SO was reasonable, although he/she should have explained to you why it was deleted (because it wasn't an answer; when you didn't have the privilege to comment under an answer there, you should work a little bit more to earn at least 50 reputation points). I think the intention of SO is good: it is good for beginners to stay there for a while and be familiar with the environment before they can have different sorts of privileges, and the intention is to encourage you to contribute enough before you ask for more, which is a good mechanism in my eyes. However, I can tell you that I absolutely hate the way some people with high privileges treat beginners. As an active SO user, I have seen many cases in which these people are extremely hostile and irresponsible to beginners, e.g. sometimes they close or delete questions without explanations, and what is worse, some people, even though with big reputation points, do not even understand what they are doing (e.g. I have seen people with zero contribution to the r tag on SO close r questions).

Anyway, I'm with Hadley that I hope can be a friendly place to beginners. Personally (i.e. not representing RStudio) I tend to see specific questions on SO, but general discussions here. That said, it is totally okay to ask specific questions here, too. I don't have a strong opinion.


I don't want to take the convo too off course, but there are over a thousand R questions on SO each week, so it is only natural that the people who moderate questions will (i) sometimes not be R experts (nor need to be for the decisions they're making); and (ii) sometimes not engage with the OP when closing or deleting.

I don't think you should read hostility into silent deletion or closure. I wouldn't think twice about silently deleting a question posted as an answer, anyways.


One under-sung option for SO rep (imho) is that, once you've gotten 200 points on any of the SE sites, you automatically get 100 on the others. I think answering questions on the other sites also teaches you quite a bit about helpful question-asking, and gives you empathy for both sides of the Q&A. Personally, I did this through WebApps and English, I can't remember which was first, but there are a ton of SE sites to choose from.

Just some food for thought :wink:


I will show you some concrete and ridiculous examples when I have more time. I didn't keep track of all the terrible cases, but I did bookmark four of them recently since this problem bothered me more and more. It is extremely rare for me to delete or even downvote a question on SO, especially when I see it was from a beginner (in terms of reputation points). The problem with those people deleting or closing questions is that I feel these questions are completely valid, and sometimes a tiny bit patience can improve the beginner's question a lot.


As a long time mailing-list and SO answerer (and occasional poster), I'll play the devil's advocate here because I can see two potential issues if the purpose of this community is not given clearer directions:

  1. Many questions will be cross-posted, often without links, which is infuriating when you spend time to craft a nice answer and find that it was answered somewhere else in parallel. People who put real effort in their answers generally don't appreciate seeing their time wasted (at the very least, they'll quickly grow tired of it and stop contributing).

  2. Placing all emphasis on "complete newbies", that they feel welcome even when posting clueless questions, is a commendable initiative , but I believe it needs to be complemented by other discussions of higher quality, otherwise experienced users probably won't join or won't stick around [**]. Without their contributions, the site would risk becoming a Rstudio help-desk rather than a real community. I don't think that would be very sustainable, unless Rstudio staff are prepared to be the main contributors.

My broader point is that a thriving community needs a core of highly-knowledgeable and motivated contributors, and I have not seen much effort to draw them in. On the contrary, in fact, a lot of the emphasis on newbies will sound discouraging to them: why would you join (yet another online experiment) if

  • the guidelines are very critical of other sites where you've been positively contributing for many years
  • it appears that the focus is placed on basic questions, not interesting ones
  • the community is hosted by a company, Rstudio, partly as a replacement of their previous forums for Q&As and customer requests: they have staff paid to answer such questions, why would you do it for them, for free?
  • you've already invested considerable time on previous forums (SO, mailing lists, github issues, pull requests, ...). What's the incentive to start over on this new platform, with no clear directions, no recognition of your past efforts, and no clear message that it will have interesting content for you (a seasoned R user), to make it rewarding and worth your time?

I have asked "newbie" questions on other, unrelated StackExchange sites, and the reaction has often been very disappointing and unproductive. I know how unpleasant the experience can be from that perspective.
[**] for instance, I was a very active member of the original ggplot2 mailing list; I unsubscribed a few years ago partly because interesting questions had shifted to SO. In fact, I have gradually lost motivation to engage in ggplot2 discussions on SO since its developers shifted it to maintenance-only mode. The interesting technical contributions and philosophical discussions have been scattered into individual, disconnected efforts from largely independent developers.
The range of motivations to contribute good answers is hard to pin down, but I believe the prospect of a "warm community" is not a motivation by itself; I would even argue that it's double-sided because it fosters unproductive repetition, rather than conciseness.


Thanks, you are amazing!

I absolutely agree, I was a moderator on other sites in the past and I understand where the moderator is coming from.
I was sort of desperate to ask my question, and without an ability to comment, and without the time to go through Stack Exchange and find questions I can answer, and then wait for points to come in - this was my equivalent of screaming into the void.

While I hear you, I have to say that the mechanism is a little bit upside down. Beginners come to SO for answers, helping others is not on their immediate agenda at that time. I think it's gotta be "Come for the answers, stay for the contribution" approach where at first a newbie gets a carte blanche, but the more time you spend on SO, the more is expected of you.
(By the way, perhaps this is exactly how it works. I don't know. With all sincerity - I haven't spent too much time reading about SO and details of how it functions, and it is definitely not in their tour of the website)

1 Like

I disagree with this (respectfully, of course), and I actually just did a little write-up on how I did/why I think I benefitted from the "association bonus" thing.

The aspect of what you're saying that would have been very difficult for me to empathize with before spending time answering questions elsewhere, is that there's an "abuse" (not in the violent sense of the word, in the not-using-as-intended sense) issue with a lot of drive-by poor-quality question asking (all of this is ~better described in the post I wrote). The Help Vampire thread has :+1: advice on the ways SE/SO tries to deal with this, and I by no means think it's perfect. But, if new users had carte blanche, I don't think the site would be the resource it is today (I have no Bayesian counterfactual, but, for all its shortcomings, the structure of SO is pretty rigorously discussed/thought through).


To show why it's not that way, I point you back to an important sentence from Frank:

Weird as it may sound, SO is not about helping you answer your question (directly, anyway). Instead, the tour tells you

With your help, we're working together to build a library of detailed answers to every question about programming.

i.e. SO is about helping build a resource that answers your question. That explains exactly why SO is structured as it is, e.g. why asking a question is hard:

At Stack Exchange, we insist that people who ask questions put some effort into their question, and we're kind of jerks about it.

But for good reason: we're not-so-subtly trying to help you help yourself, by teaching you Rubber Duck problem solving.

Jeff Atwood, "Rubber Duck Problem Solving"

and answers are valued so much:

Incoming questions are a universal constant, all around us in countless billions. But answers — truly brilliant, amazing, correct answers — are as rare as pearls. Thus, questions are merely the sand that produces the pearl. If we have learned anything in the last three years, it is that you optimize for pearls, not sand.

Jeff Atwood, "Optimizing For Pearls, Not Sand"

A repository of high-quality answers is the goal because

It is probably getting difficult to imagine what a programmer's life was like BSO (Before Stack Overflow, prior to 2008). Back when Joel Spolsky and Jeff Atwood were still programming for a living. And ran into the same problem that everybody was experiencing back then, finding help to get you unstuck to solve a programming problem was hard work back then.

You would be lucky if you found a FAQ or knowledge base article on a vendor's site. Low odds for that after ~2000, vendors started to rely on their forums as their primary way to provide support.

If you would not be so lucky, and very common, you'd hit the paywall of a sleazy web site like A web site that did more than any other to formulate the founders' ideas of what a useful site should look like. They took answers from volunteers but charged a subscription fee for anybody to look at those answers.

But most commonly, you'd have to dig through hits for Usenet posts and programmer forums that touched on the same subject. But maddeningly poorly curated, you'd have to sift through hundreds of pages worth of chit-chat and people calling each other names. Often not providing an answer at all. Or resembling an answer but not in any way an accurate one, just blind guesses that you could only weigh by having to read on for the "it doesn't work!" follow-up posts.

So Spolsky and Atwood set out to do something about it. Core ideas where a site that's strictly Q+A, no chit-chat or discussion, just questions and answers strictly separated. And a means to get the true answer to the top efficiently by voting. And strongly avoiding a glut of duplicate questions to limit the amount of Google hits anybody has to scan. And, after a fat year, focusing only on true programming problems.

Very successful of course, SO was a strong magnet for subject experts that were pretty happy about the focus, providing excellent answers. Most programmers that asked a question could get a great answer in less than 10 minutes. It quickly overtook any other web site in Google ranking, nobody else comes close.

Hans Passant

The question that that was designed to answer and its other answers are a gold mine for understanding SO, and are well worth a deeper look:

The goal of SO provides a justification for Baptiste's point, as well:

If the goal of the community is similar to SO, that's correct: there are no high-quality answers without capable answerers. If the goal is different—likely, or Discourse is an odd choice—experts may or may not be necessary (to be a gathering place for new useRs to commiserate is a valid goal), though it's undeniable experts would make the community considerably more valuable.


@mara, @alistaire, good answers, thank you :handshake:

One under-sung option for SO rep (imho) is that, once you’ve gotten 200 points on any of the SE sites, you automatically get 100 on the others. I think answering questions on the other sites also teaches you quite a bit about helpful question-asking, and gives you empathy for both sides of the Q&A. Personally, I did this through WebApps2 and English, I can’t remember which was first, but there are a ton of SE1 sites to choose from.

I did this with the videogames one :rofl:


I just saw a question on this site (which was answered) but was probably more appropriate for SO. I'd be concerned that over time the same sort of coding questions come up here again and again - something that SO can gatekeep

Probably nobody has time on their hands but what might be useful here would be a daily list/link of new questions on SO related to RStudio e.g tidyverse, RMarkdown, leaflet etc.

In the intro to R4DS, @hadley and @garrett give a bit of an outline re. getting help (in the aptly-named section 1.6 Getting help and learning more).

If I were to summarise it visually (and add a dash of my poorly-worded versions of @jennybryan's description of good reprex-ing from the rOpenSci community call) it might look something like this…

I don't think this is a complete flow chart of how to get help. There are elements of getting help that might be outside the scope of R4DS— perusing GitHub issues, this community site (which, AFAIK, didn't exist when the book went to print), etc., and I don't think it was intended as an exhaustive list. However, I think it might be worth thinking about how we could flesh something like this out a bit more…or adapting it to certain contexts (e.g. @jessemaegan, there are parts of the r4ds learning community that might fit in here, but that aren't universal).


But part of what I like about this site, as a complement to SO, is ... what if we don't have to gatekeep and stress out so much re: duplicates? Maybe it's ok that certain questions come up repeatedly because it's always new to someone? In the limit -- all questions are very elementary and repetitive -- that would, of course, be bad. If that seems to be a real problem, perhaps there's a way to tag or relocate such questions.


Perhaps gatekeep wasn't the best word. Maybe triage . Subsequently i found that this site does compare questions (just not very well)

If my issue was an error and I thought it was related to a package, I'd tend to go to github issues before Stackoverflow

I tend to use the latter more when I I want to get from A to B but haven't even coded enough to produce an errror

1 Like

This is a really good point, and I think it actually relates to what @pssguy is describing re. question comparisons— I like that the comparisons exist on SO, however the comparisons are only based on certain variables. And, for a beginner (or anyone not familiar with the vocabulary around the problems that come up) two similar questions might not actually seem to be the same thing.

It's also possible that they aren't the same thing (because of time and OS changes, or things that no longer exist, etc.), but that can be an intimidating thing to declare on SO:
"My very similar question is definitely different from all the others."
is (in my mind) a bold statement in the world of SO.

1 Like

I'ld like to add to this discussion that asking questions about topics that touch best practices in coding or also other programming languages (i.e. webdevelopment stuff for shiny), might result in much more emphatic answers, if people share the same background -> specialist in R, but maybe not in computer science in general.

1 Like