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Do some Stack Exchange sites have nicer cultures than others? How does one develop a positive culture in beta and afterwards? What makes an SE culture decline in civility (even in long run, and perhaps especially for larger sites)? What can be done to prevent some of the negative effects of large scale SE sites.

My definition of positive culture

A positive culture promotes professionalism, civility, and leadership skills in a way that recursively acts in a way that becomes self-sustaining (thus "culture").

A positive culture is one that encourages everyone to do the right thing. Upvote when needed. Downvote when needed.

The following "Example 1." and "Example 2." show "comment-as-implementation". That's not the real point. I'm not saying "this is exactly how it 'should' be." I'm suggesting what a Culturally Positive community would "kind of" look like. It could be implemented in a number of different ways.

Example 1:
Suppose a new member posts a question and it gets downvoted -2. A positive culture would have anyone who's been around longer than a few weeks comfortable telling the person not what they did wrong, but what they could do to improve:

  • "Welcome to our SE. You could improve this post by providing more detail on X and expanding your explanation of Y."

A positive culture would reward the above comment with at least a +1, and possibly (especially for lower rep members), another comment:

  • "+1 on community building: good comment explaining what to improve instead of what is wrong!."

That not only rewards good behavior, but it also makes it explicit to **everyone why it's good behavior** and what type of behavior is expected. That provide a model for others to follow. People don't RTFM, but they do read other comments especially when upvoted. Rep points are fun, but (for many people) social pats can have far greater meaning and value.

Example 2:
Someone says in a comment, "Your answer is obviously wrong, it's only your opinion, the way it really is, is blah blah (my opinion)". A positive culture would encourage anyone to comment,

  • That's a bit heavy handed. Skillful commenters would say, "You may want to caveat your post with more disclosure of fact vs. opinon. My opinion is..."

Other people upvote the person's comment that illustrated positive behavior. If that person has low rep, only one more comment saying, "+1 for community building." Also, the Answerist could comment,

  • "Thanks, I've updated to caveat my opinion".

And that comment would get upvoted because it's demonstrating exceptional attitude towards a misguided critical comment.

In a Positive Culture, the burden of RTFM is reduced because it's clearly demonstrated every day.

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    What's your definition of "positive culture"? How are you judging it? – psubsee2003 Mar 1 '14 at 9:04
  • I've only been active on SE for about 1.5 months in ell.stackexchange.com. I don't have experience in other sites. ell has some great, level-headed leadership. But what in 5 years? I don't know where it will be. (Hi @J.R.) – CoolHandLouis Mar 1 '14 at 10:05
  • @PeterMortensen Thanks for the edit help! (Not sure on policy here for "thanks" I can delete this later if needed. :) – CoolHandLouis Mar 1 '14 at 18:01
  • "Do some Stack Exchange sites have nicer cultures than others?" Yes. Try TeX.SE – Bakuriu Mar 1 '14 at 18:07
  • @psubsee2003 Thanks for the suggestions to move my comments to main post. I deleted redundant comments here to save space. – CoolHandLouis Mar 1 '14 at 19:27
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    I'd get tired of reading "+1 for community building" comments pretty soon. The language sounds pointy-haired to me, and this is not what comments are for, anyway. As for the differences between SE sites: sure, they exist. Traffic, and the percentage of "do this for me" pseudo-questions play a role. Also, xkcd 186 comes to mind. – How About a Nice Big Cup of Mar 1 '14 at 22:18
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    I would prefer CommunityBuilding (as I'm suggesting) would be implemented in system code and features (I have no thoughts on how yet). But now, commenting would be a great place to implement this. I don't think the philosophy of commenting is so cut-and-dry to suggest that IF (that's a big if) such a system could promote a great community, then it still wouldn't be acceptable because of "some pointy-haired rule" on What Comments Are Not Meant For. I agree there's problems using comments. But don't get too tied up in comments-as-implementation. There could be other ways besides comments. – CoolHandLouis Mar 1 '14 at 23:36
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    And let's say comments-as-implementation "works" as I'm kind of suggesting. Ok you'd get tired of reading "+1 for community building". But those can get deleted fairly quickly. And you'd also save a lot of time in other areas where CommunityBuilding brings tremendous value as more people are brought into the role of helping to manage stackexchanges. There's always a cost for things. I'm simply saying that "Net gain may be positive". – CoolHandLouis Mar 1 '14 at 23:41
  • @Jaydles, Ping! I wanted to share this post with you, if you hadn't seen it already. Within my "question" and subsequent comments is some of my theory on Community Building. My question was open-ended enough, but also rhetorical to give a platform for my own thoughts on the matter. Some responses are "that's the way it is" but I think that misses the point, which is that a better (more effective) community reduces moderator work. – CoolHandLouis Jul 16 '14 at 3:41
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From what I've seen, it is primarily a measure of how fed up the community is with bad questions. Everything else has little to no effect.

Forewarning: the logical arguments below make some assumptions which are guaranteed to be untrue in some cases and for certain specific questions. Thus, the following text should be taken with a grain of salt. I speak in absolutes which only apply under my assumptions.

There's some variability that's given when setting up a site (which people become predominant leaders?; what are their attitudes?), but for the most part, it depends primarily on how fed up people are with incessant community moderation.

For the purposes of this response, let's take a healthy beta site - i.e. one with a high body of committed users who understand what's going on. If we don't have this, then the case is moot a priori.

tl;dr? I posit these things:

  1. Community moderation wears down moderators (users included) over time, as it is inherently a corrosive process.
  2. The standard moderation actions - simple downvotes and close votes - feel like rejection, even though they aren't meant that way.
  3. Moderation without commenting feels very much like rejection. Moderation with commenting comes across as friendly help - the user understands why the "machine" is responding the way it is to what they said, and the act of human 'contact' lessens the blow.
  4. Due to the inherently corrosive nature of moderation, people over time grow weary of helping new users constantly. I'm sure most of us here have, at some point, gone "oh gods, not another user with another bad question," and probably not have been as helpful as we could have been.
  5. Sites with new communities are a) newer to moderation, b) more persistently motivated to combat poor questions, and c) seeking new members actively. These things combine so that users on new sites tend to provide constructive comments associated with moderative action - as a result, new users feel better about their failed posts and welcomed into the community.

Community moderation is wonderful, but over time, it wears one down.

I've moderated IRC for several years, a couple forums here and there, and have participated in on-and-off community moderation on Stack Exchange. While I could go into a detailed description on what results in moderation burnout, it's sufficient to say that it happens.

People who genuinely want a medium to succeed are necessary. The people who are committed to a certain project are more likely to be friendlier - but in their eyes (mostly), it is simply a matter of being more open to guiding new users who are lost/aren't in Kansas anymore.

When a community grows tired of self-moderation, the community tends to be less open to guiding new users, and tends to simply (for example) close questions without explaining why.

The default moderation actions on SE are, by nature, unfriendly. Hear me out on this one.

I know this sounds weird to say, but the default moderation actions generally come across poorly. It's not the fault of SE or the way it's set up, but simply a function of the social nature of the site. People come looking for human interaction and friendliness, and find they're slapped around a bit by a machine wielding a close- and down-hammer. This, to most people, probably feels like rejection.

While you, dear reader, are probably used to moderation responses, receiving downvotes and having one's questions closed sure as hell feels like being shut out of the community. That is, unless people comment.

I've noticed that on newer betas, people are more open to constructively commenting on posts to improve them. However, after a while, the community seems to grow out of this. People comment constructively on posts less over time when downvoting or voting to close questions, which in turn results in a less "friendly" impression on the new user.

An anecdotal example: Stack Overflow and Moderation

We see questions on MSO quite often about why Stack Overflow is so unfriendly to new users, why people are being shut out, and how poorly people feel.

We on MSO know that our moderation is not intended to come across as harsh judgment or penalties, but even though we do not intend it to be received negatively, that does not mean it is received positively.

I don't think I need to bother linking to the slew of people who have come to Meta complaining Stack Overflow is [insert negative term]. The reasons for this are, in my opinion, quite simple: most people on Stack Overflow have seen so much garbage that most don't comment helpfully. As a result, new users feel shut out from the community - sometimes even incensed by the lack of constructive help.

Mitigating the corrosive effects of moderation over time - and in new communities

The primary thing any new community can do is encourage commenting. This does three things:

  1. It draws new users into the site by making them feel welcome.
  2. It makes moderation on the site much more effective - users understand why questions are closed, downvoted, etc. removing the impression that "the mysterious force" is arbitrarily rejecting them.
  3. It provides vague human contact, which most people tend to like.

Good, tough moderation and leadership are beneficial to the site, but it must be counterabalanced against constructive comments. If it is not, incoming members will feel rejected.

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    Some sites like SO, may be better of without 90% of the new users that come along asking questions. Other sites need more people to ask quesions. If you don't need someone you are more likely not to be nice to them. – Ian Ringrose Mar 1 '14 at 14:48
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    In your post, you talk about the tools themselves being harsh, which is true, but I've seen some pretty nasty, mean-spirited comments on 1 rep user's posts that exponentially increase this effect. One thing to add is there's outflow just as much as there is inflow. Regular users get sidetracked by real life and leave Stack Exchange either temporarily or permanently. If the community is mean to every new user (I don't mean closing/downvoting, I mean being downright mean in comments) who is going to replace the regular 10k+ users who leave? Great post, by the way. +1 – jmort253 Mar 1 '14 at 21:27
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    @jmort These are very good points - the cycle of users' activity over time actively contributes to this problem. However, the case you mention is more relevant for Stack Overflow in particular (I don't have enough experience with the rest of the Trilogy to say) - and I didn't want to go quite as far as call Stack Overflow occasionally openly hostile. It's not often well-received on Meta, and it would have detracted from my point. – Aza Mar 1 '14 at 23:38
  • @Emracool - I hear you. You're tailoring your message to your audience, and insulting your audience isn't really a good way to get people to ponder your message. Very wise. :) – jmort253 Mar 2 '14 at 2:56
  • You make some very good points about commenting. In my experience, most people on SO don't do this ver well. – Robert Harvey Mar 3 '14 at 18:52
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What is "nice", exactly?

As someone who has participated in many Stack Exchange betas, this is a tough question to answer because the term "nice" isn't clearly defined. Many people mistakenly think "nice" means "anything goes" or that there's no rules or guidelines and that they're entitled to post whatever they want.

So to get that out of the way, let's define nice based on two criteria:

  • If a question or an answer is not useful or doesn't meet that site's guidelines, then it's negatively scored, put on hold, or deleted. Sympathy upvotes don't exist and aren't in your vocabulary.

  • Comments are polite and helpful, containing information that explains to the user what to do, not what not to do. Community members work with folks to help them get their questions reopened without sacrificing quality.

The reason I cover this is because of your reference to Skeptics. Imagine what Skeptics would be like if there were no guidelines. Could you rely on the information there? Would you cite the material in a professional research paper or a book? Would you be able to trust that the information is based on factual knowledge?

In short, a beta site with no guidelines can end up like this site or like this site. In the end, that's not very nice.

If Skeptics skimped on their standards, they'd either still be a beta site or would be sitting in Area 51's graveyard right next to the aforementioned closed betas. How nice was it to the people who put the time and energy to have their site closed, simply because a few people didn't understand that the goal is to build an expert base of knowledge?

Leadership is key

The key to building a thriving Stack Exchange community is leadership. The core community members set the example for how folks should behave. Theory of Moderation is a good read for anyone interested in participating in new betas. The key to success is this:

Your goal is to guide the community with gentle — but firm — intervention. Respect your fellow community members at all times; demonstrate fairness and impartiality in your actions.

This isn't just for moderators. The communities that adopt this piece of the theory of moderation have a better chance of succeeding. These communities have people who care about the content, but they're also willing to help others improve their posts with editing and with helpful comments. There's less focus on the individual and more on the mission to build a thriving site.

Sites like Skeptics have questions that just keep constantly pouring in, and it seems like no one learns the rules because there's always a stream of new people. This leads to some degree of burnout. I see it happen on busier sites. I've had to walk away before to avoid falling into that trap myself. It's not easy to continue to smile when people post low quality material on your site, especially when some folks aren't willing to learn the norms of the community or listen to advice.

However, sites that separate the tools (voting, closing, editing) from the commenting and who can firmly uphold standards while still being humane to people are what you should target.

The key to avoiding burnout is to build a community of core users in chat who can share the burden. I see some users post links in chat to point out trouble spots to those who specialize in helping to fix those problems, whether it be moderators, editors, or folks who are just good at talking to and teaching new users.


I'll leave you with this quote from Joel Spolsky during Stack Exchange's Summer of Love:

The goal is simple: to keep Stack Exchange a welcoming, friendly place without lowering our standards. No, you may not ask “plz send me the code” questions, but if you do, we will explain to you, in a friendly and professional way, what you did wrong.

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    IMHO, Joel Spolsky did some damage with that quote. The words "friendly, professional" & "explain what you did wrong" do contradict. You would never find that in a customer service manual. What would SE be like if it was "...friendly place while maintaining our standards. No, you may not ask...we will explain and guide you, in a friendly and professional way, what you need to do in order to ask quality questions." In spirit, the Joel Spolsky quote is what I mean. But I think the wording is unfortunately in the negative direction instead of positive (or both for balance). – CoolHandLouis Mar 1 '14 at 12:36
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    @CoolHandLouis - I'm actually glad you caught that. I noticed that as I was including the quote. Focusing on the positive is really the key to success, kind of like a good teacher. – jmort253 Mar 1 '14 at 18:45
  • @CoolHandLouis - Okay, I'll take a look later on when I get time. Thanks for the heads up. – jmort253 Mar 3 '14 at 19:59
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There's a problem with the definition of the word 'community' here.

On some sites, the people answering and moderating, together with many of the people asking, make up a community.

For the high-traffic / high-controversy sites, that is not the community. The community consists of those that answer, those that moderate, and a tiny fraction of those that ask. The overwhelming number of those that ask are people with no interest whatsoever in joining a community, no willingness to abide by the standards of a community, or both.

Stack Overflow is, of course, the flagship of this state of affairs, and Joel's quote was written long, long, before the numbers proved that out.

In an environment where the community is relatively small group of people besieged by an army of zombies students idiots people who want an answer right now and will leave as soon as they get it, you can't expect moderation to 'focus on the positive'. You can ask it to be polite, period.

'Corrosive' just doesn't apply here. We are not trying to turn every clueless first-year computer science student on the Internet into a member of our community. It is not a goal. So it is not a goal to make nice to them and teach them to ask good questions. It is a goal to send them away if they choose not to read the resources available and make a decent effort to ask a reasonable question. So nothing is failing, and nothing is wrong, if these people feel swatted a bit by close votes and deletions. Frankly, for every individual who makes it as far as complaining on meta about unfriendliness, I expect that there are 100 who earn a question ban be persevering in their perversity.

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    This is exactly, well, sort of what I'm saying. Separate use of the tools (i.e voting, closing, deleting) from commenting (i.e. "Please see this link for guidance on fixing this post to get it reopen/undeleted/positively scored."). Nice doesn't mean you allow crap. It just means you don't have to be a jerk about not allowing crap. :) – jmort253 Mar 1 '14 at 21:18

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