Getting the most out of StackExchange

Some tips and tricks on how to get the most out of StackExchange sites

The StackExchange websites are a series of Q&A sites browsed by literally thousands of experts in their respective fields. I have been using them for some time now and many of them have become my go to place after google if something has stumped me.  Such is their ubiquity in my life that sometimes I am shocked when I suggest to a developer to check on StackOverflow and they don’t know what I am talking about.

The most well known of these Q&A sites is the just mentioned StackOverflow, here is a short blurb from their site explaining what it is;

Stack Overflow is a programming Q&A site that’s free. Free to ask questions, free to answer questions, free to read, free to index, built with plain old HTML, no fake rot13 text on the home page, no scammy google-cloaking tactics, no salespeople, no JavaScript windows dropping down in front of the answer asking for $12.95 to go away. You can register if you want to collect karma and win valuable flair that will appear next to your name, but otherwise, it’s just free. And fast. Very, very fast.

Post your question and people will start to answer it, the community votes on the best answer and as the asker you can pick a solution you feel is the correct answer and mark it as such.  That is it, which is why they are so popular, they perform one task and they do it incredibly well.

Stack Overflow
Screenshot of StackOverflow

General Tips

  • Search first, ask questions later - Some of the sites have thousands of questions already and there is a good chance that your question, or at least part of your question has already been answered.  The site tries to help you as much as possible by suggesting questions to look at so please follow those links, the first comment you will receive if you post a possible duplicate is “This is a possible duplicate”.  Being lazy is not the way to make friends on these sites.
  • Ask in the right place - I fall victim to this one a lot, there are a load of different SE sites now and it is important that you ask your question in the right one.  The reason for this is half because regular users don’t want to see off topic questions on their site but also because your question will not be being seen by the correct people (or at least not by as many correct people as perhaps it could be).  There are moderators on hand to clean up mistakes but it would make everyone’s lives a little easier if you took 5 minutes to check there isn’t a better site for the question.
  • Stay on topic- There are two settings for questions, one is the standard question - One question, several answers from which one should be chosen as the correct one.  If the question is more opinion based or there is more than one way to correctly solve the problem the question is marked as a community wiki.  Some people see the community wiki sign and immediately think they can just post whatever rubbish they want in it, this is not the case - as I mentioned the community wiki is for questions that may not have one correct answer, if your answer is not directly answering the question then you should consider making it a comment, or not posting it at all.  Also remember to stick to the 1 question per question rule, asking supplementary questions detracts from the easy browsing of already answered questions.
  • Only answer when you can help - This is kind of linked to my point above but it deserves restating, only answer questions when you have an answer, and answers cannot, by their definition, contain questions.  If you need to clarify something with the person asking the question then post a comment, doing this helps keep the flow of the questions and makes people coming who want to see if they can add to the previous answers lives a lot easier.
  • Don’t spam - Questions with replies get bumped up more, and on some of the larger sites it is very easy for a question to fall from the first few pages very quickly, this does not give you an excuse to ask the question again or in some way try and bump your question up.  The community, by and large, is very good at searching for questions they can help with and most of the sites have a high rate for answering questions (97%+).  Also trying to link to your site just to get a few extra hits really isn’t going to work, it is obvious as hell when you post something with that in mind, examples should generally speaking be posted in code form so that people can run them for themselves if they wish.
  • Try and help others - After you have asked your question or checking on some answers spend 5 minutes browsing and looking to see if there is someone you can help by providing an answer.  There are several benefits to this as well as feeling good about yourself for helping someone in need you can also collect a sort of kudos from the community. The points system is not something I am going to get into in this post but the more quality questions you ask/answer/comment the more points you accumulate, and more points give you more access on the site.
  • Try and help yourself - One of the issues I found myself getting into was because there was such a quick turnaround rate between asking a question and getting a quality answer was that I was tempted into not thinking of the answer for myself, I could ask the question and then spend my time concentrating on a different problem whilst someone else dealt with my original one. This is rubbish, you should think the problem through yourself thoroughly before even thinking about asking for help.  After typing the question re-read it, the amount of times I have committed something to screen and then just before publishing it having an ‘ah ha!’ moment is unbelievable.  Trying to explain the problem can sometimes help you figure it out yourself.
  • Ask questions correctly - Use proper grammar, try and be as descriptive as possible by providing examples and edge cases along with a thorough explanation of your question, use correct markup when writing questions and answers (There is a code tag, for example) and make sure you tag the question with the most relevant tags you can think of.

Stack Exchange Sites I think are worth checking out

I think it is only fair to point out that I have written since about how I think StackOverflow winning the internet maybe isn’t the best thing.

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