Matt Gemmell

My new book CHANGER is out now!

An action-adventure novel — book 1 in the KESTREL series.

★★★★★ — Amazon


Writing 2 min read

In December 2008, I wrote an article entitled What have you tried?, which I’ll henceforth refer to as WHYT.

To date, it’s the most-read piece on this site (my article on iOS 7 trails behind at just over a quarter of a million page views). I’ve had more than a thousand visitors to WHYT per week, for the last six years.

In hindsight, I wish I’d never published it.

WHYT is about how people ask for help, mostly with technical questions (especially those related to programming). Specifically, it’s about the very common phenomenon where people don’t even attempt to solve problems for themselves, and instead just ask for the answer. I used to be a programmer, and I saw it all the time. It annoyed me. Hence the article, dashed out in a fit of pique and moral superiority.

It was a mistake.

The article is nominally written for someone who’s asked for the answer, rather than for help with solving a problem. The tone is reasonably helpful, but veers periodically towards didacticism and even arrogance (shocking, I know).

I wrote it, tweeted a link to my mostly-programmers followers, and even registered the domain, which points towards the piece. You can imagine the rest.

Take a moment to do a Google search for “what have you tried”. I’ll wait.

Yes, they’re pretty much all about my piece. Note the multiple threads specifically about the article on StackOverflow, which is a hugely popular tech help site.

I’d short-sightedly given the programming world another sarcastic “let me Google that for you” response, complete with snappy link - and they certainly used it. Links to the article were actually banned by StackOverflow at various points due to the sheer frequency of use, and the discussion around that practice reached the point where I apologetically responded to the decision myself.

Let me put this into perspective: in the first quarter of 2013, around 2.2% of all questions on StackOverflow had a reply with a link to WHYT. Right now, it’s about 1%.

I am mortified by those statistics. So utterly ashamed.

Something I wrote with mostly positive intentions has been used as a means of dismissal for thousands and thousands of people. It was completely foreseeable, too - it couldn’t have gone any other way. For every one person providing a well-meant link, there would always be hundreds whose message was go away.

I check my site’s referrers (the other sites that link to mine) regularly, because it’s a good way to discover responses to articles I’ve written. WHYT is a common destination for those links. Mentions still appear on Twitter too.

I’ve learned a lesson.

It’s not enough to be sure of your own intent (not that I even was, in this case, which makes it worse). You also have to consider the likely scenarios of use - or misuse - before putting something out into the world. There is absolutely a responsibility that goes along with publishing something. I’m reminded of that literally every day.

I could make it all go away in a moment, of course. Erase the article, and be done with it. But I hate to break existing links, and rewriting history is wrong.

I’m keeping the article available, and the redirect domain, and I’m living with it.

I just wish I’d never written it at all.