I think most MSO members are here because they care about SO. They want to improve the site, they want to help users, they want to improve questions and answers, they want to follow community opinion rather than their own.
But MSO members are self-selected; they do not represent SO as a whole. And in any situation where members of a group self-select and gain power and direction over the rest, there is a danger of abuse of power. This happens in the real world, and Stack Overflow is no different - and why would we expect otherwise?
Here are some specific examples I've encountered in the past 24 hours.
Two tech blogs about a specific language and IDE post about a deleted question and the value of the material there, and lamenting that it is closed and others may be. Five SO members with high reputation vote to reopen it, presumably thinking it has valuable content and should be visible.
A moderator's opinion of this, in full prior knowledge of the wide (outside-SO) interest in the question? "I have a feeling it was only reopened because the community is fascinated with the bug that they can reopen deleted questions but can't close deleted questions. It's been done before." - source.
In other words, according to this mod, high-rep SO users didn't vote to reopen because they were newly aware of the question and wider community interest had been drawn to it. No, they voted in order to play games and enjoy exploiting an apparent SO bug.
This is extremely disrespectful and completely out of line. Yet, how many upvotes did that comment get? 6. How many upvotes did my reply, "I think it's most likely it was reopened because of the recent attention drawn to it by two community bloggers" get? 0. Let's stop and examine what that means. It means a diamond mod has so little respect for high-rep SO members he thinks it's ok to slur their motives about enjoying exploiting bugs, instead of having a valid community interest. It means several others here think he's right to do so. And it means noone - no one - thinks the possibility of having community interest at heart, in spite of documented evidence to the contrary, is even worth considering.
Think about that for a minute. This is a scary attitude and it's frightening it is agreed with and encouraged.
The question was reopened and it was noted it was of low quality, and there were concrete suggestions to improve it, which required being able to edit the question. Despite the open meta discussion about the question, it is voted to close. I see reopen votes start to accumulate rapidly - I don't know by who (one vote was mine). I point out that I am actively trying to edit the question and improve the answers and asked for contributions from the community who expressed interest int it, and ask it be left open long enough to do that. It is locked, by the same moderator as above, who is aware I want to edit it, with the comment "Problem solved." Yes, users reopening a question they are interested in, and a user trying to improve a question and it answers, are regarded as a problem. I can no longer edit the question or provide good answers. The mod's response? "Why don't you concentrate on improving the answers first, and if you can complete that, I'll unlock the question so you can create the index you so desire."
It's easy to read a patronising tone there. But let's try not to and address the issue.
I explain that I need to split answers, where some cover more than one item; that I want to edit the question as suggested by other commenters, where it was suggested "as a start" to improve it. Ie, I'm not even able to do what was recommended as a beginning - as he knows, since he's been active in the entire thread. He doesn't answer questions about his actions.
I give up, having edited some of the answers but having been completely unable to salvage the question - apparently deliberately.
I notice three related questions, with indisputably high content answers that the SO community indisputably (provably, linkably [*]) wants to keep, are closed, locked, and deleted. Interestingly, the deleted ones are those with a smaller community (no less valuable, one would hope - minorities should be treated equally) and the one for a vast community is merely locked. I don't know if this is coincidence.
You would be right if you expect, now, my pointing these two things out to have no effect. I wrote in an update, "I am very much afraid that in trying to get a reopened question undeleted and then improving it, I have inadvertently done great damage to other useful questions." Well, I haven't, and I shouldn't feel responsible. Mods have.
Ok, let's stop here. It's one evening, only a couple of diamond mods, plus a few other MSO members. We have (a) shocking disrespect for SO members, (b) disregard for SO community interest in a question, (c) disregard for outside-SO interest in a question, (d) deliberate prevention of improving questions and answers, (e) addressing disagreement by preventing or ignoring discussion, (f) an attitude change where I have become afraid of calling mod's attention to questions because I expect them to damage the post. I want to explicitly call this out, especially (a), as a anti-user culture. Mods abuse and sneer at normal SO members, use their power to prevent them improving, and mock them in comments. Doing so, they are upvoted. (This is the key - it's not one person.) This is systemic.
This kind of thing couldn't be widespread, could it?
Sadly, yes it could.
The rest of this post posits that this attitude is not an isolated example, but a less-strong form of it exists in general MSO or moderator attitudes, and uses examples of (a) outside-SO opinions of SO and (b) the common problem of deleted content where the community wishes it to be preserved as supporting proof.
Examples from the wider community
Let's examine the wider community's opinion of SO:
There is something else, however, in the whole Stack Exchange hierarchy that bugs me: the creeping authoritarianism.
The "flavour" of StackOverflow today is entirely different than the flavour it had when I started. When I started the community as a whole still had a bit of a sense of humour. Sure sometimes questions and/or answers would be a bit off-topic or a bit irreverent, but it gave more of a community feel ... This changed slowly but surely in the way that all "community moderated" things change. ... Take a look at the site now.
The whole post is worth reading; it's very balanced and lists a lot of positive stuff too. He also makes some very, very good points about the direction of SO moderation.
The badly titled "Why Stack Overflow sucks". But he makes a good point, and discusses a question closure for an invalid reason by a well-known mod.
More than 1.5 year (!) after the question was answered he returned to it and deleted both the question and my answer (my answer probably because it contradicted his resolution). [Edit: it was closed as unanswerable, false because what was needed was clearly obvious, and the guy here answered it.] If you think your post was not well accepted on SO, just think of the whole picture.
"The world of Stack Overflow is a scary one..."
and ending saying the best thing is to not actively participate, and use it as a resource rather than contribute.
- An off-the-cuff comment: "Who am I to argue with the minority of “the world is black and white, we just follow the rules” diamonds?" - one poor soul aware of his powerlessness.
I could go on. These are just links I've accumulated. Anecdotally, I can confirm this too, since I know engineers and programmers who are aware of the site but regard it as something to read, but never contribute to.
It's very clear here that a number of people are left with a bad taste in their mouth. People are actively advising others not to use the site.
Ok, let's look at intra-SO discussion!
The best discussion I have ever read about moderation is this answer on "Community-led deletionism: a protocol for sanity". It makes a number of good points:
[Deletionism, but read in the context of common mod operations] is completely contrary to the spirit that once characterized SO, back when the goal was to help people, it is that close to pushing away many users who have been with the site since it launched in 2008, and it is constantly threatening to remove information that everyone agrees is useful, just because it doesn't quite fit the formalized rules made up by Meta users. When did it become more important to satisfy Meta users than actually being useful?
Wow, I really identify with that. I love what SO used to be and the light-hearted community attitude that produced interesting questions and answers in a friendly spirit.
I don't think MSO users are evil, power-hungry authoritarian madmen. At least not all of them. I do believe that you are on MSO for a reason. That if you truly had no interest in steering the site, you would not participate on MSO. And this leads to the conclusion that if you are on MSO, it is because you seek some form of influence over the site. That's not a bad thing or something you should be ashamed of. But let's face facts ... And this means that MSO users are not representative by default.
A lot of people here on MSO get upset when they hear terms like "the meta police". But the term exists for a reason.
It is an extremely good discussion of problems with moderation, with self-selection, and in a very neutral tone with MSO people being out of touch with the real SO community, and the rules they make not fitting what the community wants. It also makes the very good point that we're here to help people, that satisfying MSO users is not the goal, and that removing information is not the goal and should not happen.
Let's return to the beginning. I used the phrase "anti-user culture". This isn't exaggeration, it's quite true. Mods are upvoted for sneering at normal users and casting aspersions at their motives. There is no support for a voice suggesting good motives, even with documented proof this is likely (which should not be necessary, we should assume good intentions by default.) An environment in which this occurs is toxic.
Let me repeat that: so it's quite clear - there is no uncertainty here. It's not like some people supported the mocking moderator and some supported the idea of community interest. No-one supported the idea of there being community interest, despite proof, written external proof. No-one. Among many MSO members and mods. This is toxic.
I would be quite happy if the mod in question and those who upvoted him were suspended for a while to give them time to re-align with a better attitude, and I hope this happens. But there's more to it than that. The picture I have drawn for you is one where this anti-user culture extents further, not against specific users but against all users. We have clear examples where questions are deleted, for example, because it's MSO / SO policy in spite of not being what the community wants. How can this happen? How can any MSO member here claim this family of questions should be deleted by default and it's general opinion, as some have? I can answer: it's because the environment here is immersed in itself and is not aware of, and not always acting for, the greater community. It no longer has knowledge and resources as its goal. It's a a big community where quality control is essential, but I wonder if the quality control becomes so overwhelming the control is all that seen? (I don't know.) It is anti-normal-user. If this was a physical human society, there would be many pundits deeply concerned about the society's direction. We should be no less concerned because it is virtual.
I know how easy it is in any small environment for the outside to become invisible or unclear. It's human. It's only bad if we don't recognise it.
I also know SO is huge now. The task of tackling quality control is huge, and I have a deep admiration for those who manage it. But as part of that, the attitude towards normal users and the direction the whole site has been steered in has changed.
We're not at the bottom yet. But we're on the way. Let's stop it before we go any further.
I would like reopen and similar actions by high-rep users to be regarded as probably well-intentioned. I would like users improving posts to be assisted and encouraged. I would like the highly upvoted opinions in a past discussion to be respected, not ignored. I would like useful content to never be deleted, but be curated. I would like a light-hearted attitude to return and for there to be room for questions "on the edge". I would like the attitude on SO to be one of helping users, encouraging interesting content, and respecting the interests and opinions of the greater community of programmers not only outside MSO, but outside StackOverflow too, whom we exist to serve. And I would ask all of you, the vast majority of whom I have a great deal of respect for and who I believe truly have good motives, to help that happen.
[*] "Proveably, linkably." The questions were in the "Hidden family of X" series, about Delphi, Oxygene and XCode. Many mods claim "we" want these to be closed or deleted now, but I can find no evidence this is really the community opinion. But there is a lot of evidence they're regarded as valuable and should be kept, even if no longer something to ask new on the site. Here is the definitive MSO thread on the topic. The accepted answer: "it depends greatly on the quality of the question as asked and the quality of the answers... Personally, I learned a lot from these questions." With many more votes (38 to 11): "I personally don't see anything wrong with these questions as long as they're made CW. ... If it were up to me, these questions would stay". This continues for the next answer, and it's not until well down the thread with many fewer votes that deletionists appear. The accepted answer is moderate and mixes deletionist views with the upvoted views - something that doesn't seem to be representative, based on votes - but it is still absolutely clear that deleting high-quality questions in this family is not SO policy.