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Recently, on Meta Stack Overflow at least, Stack Exchange staff have made questions posts in order to promote projects outside of the scope of the Q&A network.

Some recent examples:

An experiment: Stack Overflow TV

Volunteer to help mentor one of 16 new graduates starting a career in programming

There have been a lot of objections to Stack Exchange staff members using the meta sites in this manner. The topics being promoted are very tangential (Essentially blog posts) and if non SE employees posted similar content they would not be treated in the same way.

This has resulted in the topics being closed as off topic multiple times before quickly being reopened again.

I am not advocating either stance on this.

I would just like to open up a discussion as I think the issue needs to be brought outside of the comment and answer sections of these questions. When people are getting heated over something it's best to air the issues out and allow proper explanations and responses to criticism.

  • Where can we read this "lot of objections" to which you refer? I've not seen them, and in fact have observed quite the opposite - users complain when they're not consulted for opinion before new features are implemented. I also don't see a vast amount of comments objecting to either of the posts you linked here. – Ken White Sep 8 '14 at 21:59
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    @KenWhite To be fair, a lot of comments have been deleted on the volunteer post in particular. – Adam Lear Sep 8 '14 at 22:03
  • @AnnaLear: Thanks. I admit not having looked at that post for a while, and just quickly revisited now before posting the comment I left. – Ken White Sep 8 '14 at 22:11
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YES. Not doing so would be a huge disservice to the folks on these sites. We learned this lesson the hard way, long ago: trying to do anything for the benefit of a community without encouraging feedback from that community always ends badly.

This is literally why Meta sites exist - to bring us and you together, to give everyone a place where they can be heard, to prevent decisions from being made secretly and enacted with no opportunity for discussion or dissent. The fact that you're even raising this discussion probably means we've done a bad job of educating the newer folks here about meta's reason for existing, what's allowable, etc. I'm sorry - and I pledge to do better in the future, starting right here...

A bit of meta-history

In case you missed the link above, this is the blog post where Jeff outlined the reasons for creating meta sites, and why providing a venue for feedback and discussion is so critical:

But take heart: this means 10% of the community feedback you'll get is awesome! I guarantee you'll find ten posts that are pure gold, that have the potential to make the site clearly better for everyone … provided you have the intestinal fortitude to look at a hundred posts to get there. Be prepared to spend a lot of time, and I mean a whole freaking lot of time, mining through community feedback to extract those rare gems. I believe every community has users savvy enough to produce them in some quantity, and they're often startlingly wonderful.

He's not kidding. If you've ever wondered why Stack Exchange needs 9 Community Managers, it's because 18 ears and 22 eyes is barely enough to take in all of the feedback, much less respond to it as often as we ought. When Jeff told me he wanted me to just answer meta posts full-time, I thought he was full of it - there's no way it takes that much time, right? Ah, the price of naivete...

Speaking of naivete, that's what trying to run a juggernaut like SO without a place for meta discussion amounted to. In the days before MSO was created, there were at least 5 different places where issues related to SO - the site, the software, the company, the community - were being discussed:

  1. UserVoice was for bug reports and feature requests. Of course, a lot of discussion related to the problems that inspired those feature requests happened there as well. Given it wasn't really built for that, such discussions quickly became painful.

  2. The Blog was for announcements and musings on what was happening with the software, the company and to some extent the community. There is a comment system there (still is), but if you've ever tried using it then you know how useful that is for constructive discussion (somewhere between "not at all" and "actively harmful"). There's a reason more and more blogs are moving to embedding full-on forums rather than trying to use the half-baked built-in systems.

  3. IRC was used for more informal discussion and socialization. Effectively useless unless you wanted to hang out there all day and all night.

  4. There were one or more third party forums set up by dedicated community members to address the need for non-real-time discussion.

  5. Finally, Stack Overflow itself was used for some of the most productive policy discussions, as well as for things like the FAQ and other support questions. Even though Stack Overflow was not built to be a discussion forum, this ended up working better than the rest of the systems in most cases because it was both familiar and accessible to the folks who most needed it!

Meta was created to supplant all of these, with the exception of those rare announcements that absolutely don't require feedback, for which we still use the blog (and even then, generally encourage readers to go to meta with their concerns). Eventually, we built our own chat system for socialization, but meta still serves that role to some extent, as not everyone has the time or inclination to lounge.

It's easy to forget some of this, as meta (built as it is on the same Q&A engine as the rest of the sites) does not clearly encourage some of these uses. Questions are not always questions, answers are not always answers; although free-form discussion is clearly not well-supported, it can be done and occasionally must be done - we've been abusing this system for that purpose for 5 years now, and despite the rough edges the proof is in the pudding: the fact that you're even asking this question here speaks to an abundance - perhaps even an over-abundance of enthusiasm for this system.

It is worth remembering this history - and the compromises it implies - when considering whether or not a topic is appropriate for Meta...

Tangential topics

So... Now that you know which uses should be considered appropriate, which topics should be allowed?

Well... Let's look at the documentation:

If your question is about:

  • Stack Exchange
  • Stack Overflow Careers
  • Promotions & Advertising
  • Support, feature requests, or bug reports for the core Stack Exchange engine that powers all Stack Exchange websites

… it is welcome here.

That's pretty open-ended, in that any question about Stack Exchange fits. Considering the term "Stack Exchange" covers 120+ sites, the company that operates them, the software they run on and the membership of those sites, we're talking a pretty broad set of topics here. And for per-site metas, including Meta Stack Overflow? There's a charter there too:

Meta is for:

  • asking questions about how the websites work
  • asking questions of the community
  • posting bugs
  • suggesting improvements
  • proposing new features

Those are the rules that are linked to in the default Off Topic reason, and should be considered canonical - while it's possible for anyone with close privileges to type any reason they choose into the "other" field, that doesn't actually mean anything if what they type conflicts with the site's charter*.

*Believe it or not, that "other" option exists purely so others can recognize when someone's just being an ass and stop wondering if perhaps there's a problem with the question that they're overlooking.

I believe it's worth being fairly lenient toward meta discussions that are somehow connected to Stack Exchange - as long as they're asked in good faith. Remember the history here: we're abusing a tool for a purpose it wasn't originally intended to serve; are you really gonna be the one to assert that hammering nails with a shoe is ok, but cracking nuts is forbidden? And speaking of...

Double standards

...folks keep trying to make the point that Stack Exchange employees shouldn't be able to use meta for purposes that others would be disallowed from doing. That's... a really noble sentiment, I guess. It's also completely divorced from reality. Consider:

  • You can't use Stack Exchange's meta sites to track bugs in your company's software. I can, have, and will.

  • You can't use Stack Exchange's meta sites to solicit feature requests for your company's software. I can, have, and will.

  • You can't use Stack Exchange's meta sites to provide users of your software with a place to discuss and debate their use of the software. I can, have, and will.

...get the idea? It's a double standard in the same way that not allowing random people to walk into my house and cook meals in my kitchen is a double standard, which is to say it is an explicit, designed-in double standard. If you don't like something we're doing, then tell us - that's why we're here, to listen to you. But if you don't like that we're here, asking you... Well, tough cookies - that's why meta exists. If you're upset that you can't do the same thing, well... You can: just go build your own meta site.

What you can't do is tell anyone that Stack Exchange can't use the sites that Stack Exchange built for Stack Exchange users to discuss Stack Exchange to discuss the things that Stack Exchange is doing. Because that's silly and, quite frankly, rude. And it brings me to...

Moderator reopening

The last concern here is the reopening of these meta discussions by moderators and employees after they were closed by vote. It should be clear by now why this was done, given the above information on what should be considered on-topic here. But I suspect some of the distaste for this comes from the power imbalance: moderators can reopen any question with a single vote, and do so as many times as they like; normal voters are limited to one vote that requires the collaboration of others to have any influence. And it's somewhat natural to see this use of power as unfair.

But, this is why moderators have that ability. Using it thusly isn't just in their job description, it's their title: "make or become less extreme, intense, rigorous, or violent" - they're trusted with the ability to override normal community decisions when necessary to handle extreme - exceptional - situations. To allow the community to operate effectively by retarding mob mentality, to provide clear decisions when controversy arises.

Which they did.

In conclusion

I'd like to thank you for bringing this up here, politely, without the hyperbole that has been the hallmark of these discussions thus far. This is an excellent example of how meta works well for discussion: when folks can be respectful and honest even when they disagree, much can be accomplished.

We knew these ideas would be controversial to some degree; any time you try to do something a bit different, there'll be folks ready to object. Sometimes, those objections have merit, which is when it is worth discussing them - I sincerely hope that both the folks here on Meta and the folks here working at Stack Exchange are able to look past the heat and the noise, to see the value that this brings.

Any good that I've been privileged to do as an employee of Stack Exchange has been something that I learned here, from you folks. I firmly believe Stack Exchange - the company - would be a poor place indeed if it weren't for you. If you'll permit us to keep learning from you, we invite you to keep teaching.

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    Four of the community managers each have three eyes? – Lightness Races in Orbit Sep 9 '14 at 22:37
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    @LightnessRacesinOrbit: or 2 have 4 eyes. – Martijn Pieters Sep 11 '14 at 20:37
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    Yet another masterpiece of an Answer by @Shog9. – Tshepang Sep 12 '14 at 8:06
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    Can you please elaborate how the Job posting for the Spanish community manager fits into this? That seems like one of the "rare announcements that absolutely don't require feedback"; and as seen by the comments and answers there it just devolved into a flame war why SE should or shouldn't make localized SO clones. There's no constructive feedback or discussion as far as I can see, and I can't even imagine what kind of feedback one could give for a job ad (other than maybe correcting spelling mistakes). – l4mpi Sep 24 '14 at 10:25
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    @l4mpi This answer is how you should interact with a post announcing a job opportunity at SE: clarify details about the job and what we're looking for. – Laura Sep 24 '14 at 19:27
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    See my edit here, @l4mpi. – Shog9 Sep 25 '14 at 0:10
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    Of course, there's only one meta site that "Stack Exchange built for Stack Exchange users to discuss Stack Exchange"... this one. The other meta sites were build by Stack Exchange to discuss the specific individual parent sites. – Ben Voigt Feb 6 '15 at 2:58
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Folks overlook the fact that both of the items in question do indirectly bring the focus back on the Q&A. Stack Overflow TV and the mentoring opportunities are ways to give back to others while also putting the Stack Overflow name out there. The goal, from what I can tell, isn't to replace Q&A with a series of videos but to instead create videos to draw people into the Q&A network.

Everything Stack Exchange has ever done with their Q&A sites has been with the goal of expanding the network. For instance, when you and I use the share links under questions and answers to share them with our Twitter followers, it's not done with the goal of making Twitter better, but to actually get people to come to Stack Exchange.

With that said, let's take a look at the biggest misconception people have about meta:

SE has used meta to promote new ideas for years

Here are some examples:

1. Project Management Stack Exchange - Rally Conference

When Project Management Stack Exchange first entered beta, we worked with SE employees to sponsor a Rally conference. Two members of the community travelled to Colorado and participated in a session where they helped members of the conference post good questions on the site. The event was organized by a member of Stack Exchange, who vetted the idea on meta, solicited volunteers, and discussed a plan for ensuring success with the program.

While it wasn't what you'd traditionally think of as people using Stack Exchange, the conference event did create some interest in the site, and drew many professionals, who to this day three years later still use the site as a professional resource. Perhaps these mentoring outreach programs and Stack Overflow TV might also be used as tools to draw people in to the Q&A sites.

2. Bicycles SE volunteering at a Portland Parkways event

Bicycles SE is another example of a site on the network where a user used meta to work with Stack Exchange to organize a volunteer event for Portland Parkways. We staged a booth, and handed out Stack Exchange swag to bicyclists as a way to promote the site and the network.

3. Super User and other site promotional contests

Stack Exchange also regularly holds contests and events, which are discussed and executed on meta. Super User, a few years ago, held an event where winners of a contest received t-shirts and other prizes for meeting certain goals.

In summary, meta has been used in this manner for a long time. It's nothing new. The only difference is that they're now focusing on ways to improve the image of Stack Overflow by creating different ways of drawing more people into the network, and since it's not something the majority of Stack Overflow users are used to seeing, people panic instead of taking a deep breath and legitimately trying to understand the motivation for change. The nice thing is that if we aren't interested in a certain meta activity, we can always just move on and go focus on something else.

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    I figured there had to be examples outside of Stack Overflow, thanks for highlighting some of them. – Amicable Sep 5 '14 at 10:35
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    "The nice thing is that if we aren't interested in a certain meta activity, we can always just move on and go focus on something else." - doesn't the same apply to all the off-topic questions on SO and MSO? – Ganesh Sittampalam Sep 5 '14 at 18:53
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    @GaneshSittampalam, you're comparing apples to oranges and making a strawman argument. This stuff, as I've pointed out, isn't off-topic. – jmort253 Sep 5 '14 at 21:11
  • I'm pointing out that we have an 'off-topic' classification because we don't want the sites to be cluttered up. – Ganesh Sittampalam Sep 5 '14 at 21:13
  • Then I apologize, I guess I'm not following what you're trying to say, @GaneshSittampalam. Perhaps you can clarify. – jmort253 Sep 5 '14 at 21:14
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    I mean that "we can always just move on" doesn't really add anything to your argument. If enough people consider it unwanted clutter, it's not enough to just say they can ignore it - it shouldn't be on the site. – Ganesh Sittampalam Sep 5 '14 at 21:17
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    @GaneshSittampalam, sometimes the majority is just wrong. And just because people don't like an idea doesn't mean it's off-topic. Stack Overflow, to the best of my knowledge, hasn't done a lot of the same PR type stuff that typically happens elsewhere on the SE network. As I've pointed out, meta is the bridge between Stack Exchange and the community, and if Stack Exchange wants to vet an idea past that community that may help improve that community, it seems logical to do so. That is precisely what meta is for. – jmort253 Sep 5 '14 at 21:25
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    @Amicable There are some older examples on Stack Overflow as well, like the whole DevDays conferences which were somewhat organized on MSO. Actually, DevDays sounds like the predecessor to the current video tutorial idea. – Troyen Sep 6 '14 at 0:40
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No, they shouldn't. There were a few reasons given for putting the first one on MSO:

The blog is not equipped well enough to hold proper discussions.

Well, work on improving the blog then instead of misusing a Meta.

We can reach far more people via MSO than via the blog.

We already have a section in the right-side bar with Featured on Meta and Hot Meta Posts. You can add another bit to it, Featured on Blog.

What makes this even more strange in my eyes: we only just split MSO into MSE and a proper Meta site for SO. And now the team starts posting things there that don't belong.


Adding my reply to @rene here because I think he hit an important point.

I suspect there would be less of a knee jerk reaction if the community is actively involved in the process, so it feels like an actual part of the community instead of something being forced upon them. With that I mean, the team can come to Meta and ask the community to brainstorm around a broad idea to come up with a concrete idea.

Right now it's more like, hey we came up with this and you people here might be interested in it because programming, so leave us some feedback on the finished thing.

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    I understand your sentiment but I find it difficult to expect them to make the distinction so clear. As soon as there is an outage we expect that all available details, including who did what, when and where are shared but as soon as there are less pressing matters to discuss which contribute to the (operational) excellence of the QA network a knee jerk reaction is the result. I find meta the perfect place to discuss how to evolve the overall quality of the community. – rene Sep 5 '14 at 10:10
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    @rene - a post on a meta site explaining an outage is a completely different thing to one promoting something apparently tangential to the site. – ChrisF Sep 5 '14 at 10:58
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    @rene I suspect there would be less of a knee jerk reaction if the community is actively involved in the process, so it feels like an actual part of the community instead of something being forced upon them. With that I mean, the team can come to Meta and ask the community to brainstorm around a broad idea to come up with a concrete idea. Right now it's more like, hey we came up with this and you people here might be interested in it because programming, so leave us some feedback on the finished thing. – anon Sep 5 '14 at 11:06
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    "so it feels like an actual part of the community instead of something being forced upon them" ... how about they stop whining and just enjoy what they get for free? And if they want to participate, they can always ask in how far contributions/participation is welcomed. Blog posts are essentially dead entities. Meta most certainly isn't. Even if the ship hits the fan there, it's alive. – Bart Sep 5 '14 at 11:48
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    The blog could be modified to use this new commenting system I've heard called Discourse and then it would be a better place for discussions. </irony> – paulmorriss Sep 5 '14 at 11:54
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    @Bart the SE network is successful because of the great efforts delivered by the team and by the community. Telling one of them to "stop whining" is not productive at all. – anon Sep 5 '14 at 11:54
  • "You can add another bit to it, Featured on Blog" - IIRC, something like this already exists; at least I remember there being some prominently placed links for blog posts in the past. – l4mpi Sep 5 '14 at 11:56
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    Absolutely @stijn. But you're missing my point. There is simply no need for the knee jerk in the first place. The whole "how dare you complete something without my prior knowledge and input" is completely unnecessary. Just enjoy that it's there (or ignore it if you're not interested) and see how you can still contribute from there on out. I have yet to see anything happen where input was not welcomed, no matter how far SO/SE had progressed on its own. – Bart Sep 5 '14 at 11:57
  • @Bart ok I see, well I agree with that. I've been more or less a silent observer of the whole thing. – anon Sep 5 '14 at 11:59
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    The problem is the misconception that something is being forced upon you. Do you picture StackTV videos being mixed in with the Q&A? Suddenly a stream of videos will appear in the stream for your favorite tag? I highly doubt that will happen. None of the other tangential things Stack Exchange has done has made it into the Q&A. It's just something designed as outreach to make more people aware Stack Overflow exists. I really think people are overreacting. It's a sign of maturity to ask questions first to try and understand something before passing judgement. – jmort253 Sep 5 '14 at 15:02
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    Back in 2009, Stack Overflow ran a DevDays conference where people would go and spend a day listening to presentations on a large variety of topics. It was announced on the blog, true, but there were also a number of MSO topics (including attempting to organize a 2011 repeat conference). That sounds somewhat similar to announcing video tutorials - trying to get people interested in programming topics they may be unfamiliar with, and then sending them to SO with advanced questions. – Troyen Sep 6 '14 at 0:44
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It's a private company, it's not an open source project. Sure enough it's built upon a huge worldwide community volunteer work. We, volunteers, have joined a successful idea based on a novel "wiki-licensed" Q&A model.

I'm reading those meta posts as the company reaching the community asking "What do you think about this trial ballon we're studying/launching?". Yes, it subverts the Q&A model which we helped to build and we do enforce on a daily basis ("Sorry, this is not a help forum, a discussion board nor a search engine. Please, focus your question [this way] and refer to the Help Center for details.").

I'm fine with controlled-subversion of the system to reach the core community to help conceptualize, experiment and build new stuff. What's the community participation on other channels (Blog, Podcast, Twitter, FB, G+, ...)? Very low AFAIK.

Or then, by all means, install a discourse.stackexchange.com instance, so we have a tool that's more adequate than Q&As or Chat rooms (or social tools) to organize opionionated discussions.

There you have it!
Should Discourse be installed as another pet project by SE?

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    Ew, Discourse. If SE ever gets a forum, let alone one based on Ember, I’m leaving. – Ry- Sep 6 '14 at 1:21
  • Ok, so we're left with Q&A + Chat. How to deal with homegrown opinionated discussions? – brasofilo Sep 6 '14 at 1:24
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    Meta? We do have the discussion tag. The issue with SE promotions on Meta doesn’t have much to do with their subjectiveness, as much as people try to use that as a close reason. – Ry- Sep 6 '14 at 1:24
  • Oh, Meta for sure, that's what I'm calling controlled-subversion. It's not free for all, but for company's brainstorming/announcements/call-for-action. Normal people are not allowed to use the platform for this, and that's why I think there's some "revolt". The thing is producing more noise than feedback. – brasofilo Sep 6 '14 at 1:32
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    @brasofilo, I don't think the problem was that the discussion didn't fit the platform. Meta has been used for discussions for over 4 years now. The problem is people didn't like SE coming in and trying to vet ideas that were new and different. Replacing meta with discourse may be beneficial, but that's a completely different issue than what we faced here. – jmort253 Sep 6 '14 at 1:49
  • @jmort253, I think I got surprised by the level of drama those questions brought up and I'm missing comprehensive discussions on a given subject matter that's been put on trial by SE Inc. – brasofilo Sep 6 '14 at 2:00
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    @brasofilo The "level of drama" seemed to stem more from the fact that the close voting process was repeatedly overpowered by moderators/employees. This contradicts the "we don't run the site - you do" part that SE is so proud of. – BartoszKP Sep 6 '14 at 14:52

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