Stack Overflow and personal emails

This post is partly meant to be a general announcement, and partly meant to be something I can point people at in the future (rather than writing a short version of this on each email).

These days, I get at least a few emails practically every day along the lines of:

"I saw you on Stack Overflow, and would like you to answer this development question for me…"

It’s clear that the author:

  • Is aware of Stack Overflow
  • Is aware that Stack Overflow is a site for development Q&A
  • Is aware that I answer questions on Stack Overflow

… and yet they believe that the right way of getting me to answer a question is by emailing it to me directly. Sometimes it’s a link to a Stack Overflow question, sometimes it’s the question asked directly in email.

In the early days of Stack Overflow, this wasn’t too bad. I’d get maybe one email like this a week. Nowadays, it’s simply too much.

If you have a question worthy of Stack Overflow, ask it on Stack Overflow. If you’ve been banned from asking questions due to asking too many low-quality ones before, then I’m unlikely to enjoy answering your questions by email – learn what makes a good question instead, and edit your existing questions.

If you’ve already asked the question on Stack Overflow, you should consider why you think it’s more worthy of my attention than everyone else’s questions. You should also consider what would happen if everyone who would like me to answer a question decided to email me.

Of course in some cases it’s appropriate. If you’ve already asked a question, written it as well as you can, waited a while to see if you get any answers naturally, and if it’s in an area that you know I’m particularly experienced in (read: the C# language, basically) then that’s fine. If your question is about something from C# in Depth – a snippet which doesn’t work or some text you don’t understand, for example – then it’s entirely appropriate to mail me directly.

Basically, ask yourself whether you think I will actually welcome the email. Is it about something you know I’m specifically interested in? Or are you just trying to get more attention to a question, somewhat like jumping a queue?

I’m aware that it’s possible this post makes me look either like a grumpy curmudgeon or (worse) like an egocentric pseudo-celebrity. The truth is I’m just like everyone else, with very little time on my hands – time I’d like to spend as usefully and fairly as possible.

33 thoughts on “Stack Overflow and personal emails

  1. Great and very informative post. Thanks a lot!

    It is also worth mentioning that if you answer a question on an e-mail, you will be answering only for one person. If you do it on Stackoverflow or somewhere else on the internet, you will be answering for the whole community.

  2. Agreed, yet I recommend that you move the last paragraph to someplace at the top of the post so people will read the rest of the post from a more understanding point of view.

  3. I think it is great that you are so active. Of the times you have answered my questions on StackOverflow the question has been hard for me to find a solution for, and the answer has been high quality.

    I agree with tugberk that answering in a public arena helps everyone.

    As a side note, I could not see the captcha image (win7 google chrome 21.0.1180.83 m).

  4. Well at least they have the decency to send you an email, not a self addressed letter with a memory key and a poorly labeled letter “help pls kthx bye”

  5. well its high time you change your email and do not disclose it to any body or else just apply filter to spam it up.

    But yea i understand this annoyance. Since you are the chuck norris, hence peeps love to get answers from you.

  6. Hey, can we template this and substitute s/private email/SO chat room/ so we can reuse it for all the question-banned or just patience-deprivated people flocking into the chat rooms to get their ‘help-me-first’ thirst quenched?

    Well spoken

  7. @zenwalker: No, I *deliberately* like being open – for those who want to get in touch with me for legitimate reasons. It’s just that I don’t deem impatience or regarding me as a fall-back plan after being banned on Stack Overflow as a legitimate reason.

  8. Well, I totally understand your point of view, but do you really think this post is going to help ? or you wrote it just so you can bookmark it and use it with such future emails ?

    On a different subject:
    The captcha on your blog doesn’t work with my chrome.

  9. I know your pain… I have a similar problem on another programming forum where I’m very active, although I probably don’t receive as many of those messages as you do.
    Anyway, now you can just create a canned reply in Gmail pointing to this page to get rid of those emails in no time 😉

  10. Although you are an egocentric pseudo celebrity, you are making the web a favor by posting this simple truth. Do not let your guilt prevent you from helping the world, occidental man.

  11. I’m sure my problem is nowhere the scope of yours, but I get about one email a day related to a jQuery plugin I wrote. Now, these emails ARE usually directly about something I care about, and am the best source to answer, and for that reason I don’t mind responding (or direct them to something that exists already if it’s an faq).

    But every now and then I get someone who basically wants me to do their work for them. I tell them to set up something on jsfiddle. I tell them I don’t have time to teach them Javascript, I can only help them with specific problems. Yet they keep coming back. One guy (who really had no business doing anything at all in Javascript) even started threatening me and telling me I was going to destroy his life because he would lose his job if I didn’t basically do his work for him! Naturally, he entered my spam list at that point.

    Anyway, I feel your pain.. I hope this post changes things, but I’m not sure there’s a cure for crazy, or maybe people who just don’t want to do the work.

  12. Anyone ever heard of the delete key? Reminds me of people complaining about certain programming they dislike on TV. Just change the channel…

    “Oh the thought of those little pheasants asking for help in an improper way is offensive to ‘The Jon’…”

  13. @Dev Dude: The thing is, I don’t want to just be rude. I want to let people know that I regarded their request as inappropriate, and that there are better alternatives (like writing a *good* question on Stack Overflow). Just deleting the email without giving any indication that I’ve done so feels unnecessarily rude to me.

    I can now reply in a matter of seconds, just saying “Please read” which at least means they know where they stand.

  14. I know my comments are harsh, but seriously at the end of the day you are a huge help and asset to the community so please know that (you can add +1 to the ego count *here*). It’s just it’s hard to convey this type of post and sentiment without sounding a little ‘elitist’ by criticizing the ‘how’ of those that need help.

  15. Good post, and you are being totally fair.

    I believe that far too many developers these days ask questions too soon, rather than taking a few minutes to think for themselves.

    And what many people seem to have missed… Kudos to you for your choice to be open in this horribly anonymous virtual world. Far too few are.

  16. Wait a minute, I thought …

    Jon Skeet didn’t answer questions.

    Questions answer Jon Skeet!

  17. Hey Joh, you definitely need to move your blog. Your blog should be served from your own domain in the first place…

  18. Completely agree! And kudos for taking the time to answer some of those emails you get. I know alot of people that prefer to keep that type of traffic confined to a blog or fourm.

  19. The funny thing is that even I, who has a mere 6k rep used to get emails like this (people looked me up on Facebook because I used my real name on the site). I stopped doing that 🙂

  20. I saw you on Stack Overflow, and would like you to answer this; How the hell do you even answer so many question of StackOverflow? You have answered 3 of mine out of the millions there are on SO. You have a job, wrote a book, a family and I presume a life outside of coding. Do you sleep? Have you cloned 5 of yourself?

  21. George: I love these people, you can’t ask ’em questions. They’re so mentally gifted that we mustn’t disturb the delicate genius..

  22. That’s fair enough, I completely agree.

    Oh while you here, I keep getting this error message and was wondering if you could help:

    “Object reference not set to an instance of an object”


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