Update (Sep. 26, 2016): See my updated post on how I think new user’s should approach Stack Overflow.
Stack Overflow has always been a better-than-average resource for finding answers to programming questions. In particular, I have found a number of helpful answers to really obscure questions on the site, many of which helped me get past a road block either at work or in my hobby programming. As such, I decided I’d join the site to see if I could help out. Never before has a website given me a worse first impression.
In an effort to keep the community as clean and orderly as possible, new users have very little rights from the get-go. On paper, this is a pretty nice idea. In practice, it makes it difficult for new users to gain any traction. I read through a number of questions today and had several comments for the original poster. Unfortunately, I couldn’t make my comments, since new users cannot post comments on articles they themselves didn’t write (you have to gain “reputation” in order to gain that privilege). Posting my comment as an “answer” to the original question seemed like bad form, so I didn’t do that.
Looking elsewhere around the site, I found a few questions I felt I could answer. As soon as I went to answer said questions, someone else (in some cases, a number of other people) had jumped in and beaten me to the punch. I never had a chance to provide a helpful answer. Not only do you have to be very knowledgeable about a subject, you’ve also got to be very fast in providing said answer. I eventually did provide an answer for a question, then realized that my approach wouldn’t work. Before I could take action and modify the answer, my submission had already been modded down by several people, several of whom left snarky remarks. What a warm welcome for a new user! I subsequently deleted my answer.
I later searched the Meta Stack Overflow site, looking for advice for new users. It turns out I’m not the only one who thinks that it’s very easy for new users to get dumped on. Take a look at the questions revolving around new users on the site, and note how a number of them revolve around how hard it is for new users to improve. Documentation for how best to contribute as a new user is sorely needed.
The folks who manage these websites need to examine the barrier of entry for new users. I fully understand the need for keeping spammers and trolls out, but someone needs to develop a tutorial (or better yet, a set of tutorials) for how to properly use the website. New users do occasionally need hand holding, especially with websites as complicated as Stack Overflow. I think the community as a whole would benefit, and it would certainly help people like me who have been quickly overwhelmed by what the site offers.