Earlier today I was involved in a conversation on Stack Overflow which resulted in one user, Julia Anne Jacobs, being suspended, and another receiving a warning from a moderator.
The timeline from my perspective is:
- Julia posted an answer to this question about Angular.
- Another user, who may remain nameless for the purposes of this conversation, posted a very similar answer to hers, a few moments later.
- Julia believed that her answer was plagiarized, and told the other answerer so.
- Another user, "Concerned Father" (note the gendered and quite literally patronizing name) posted an answer containing some obnoxious tone-policing comments about her frustration with this other answerer.
- A moderator then deleted that answer.
- Due to the fact that high-reputation users have different visibility into things like edit histories and deleted comments, a mutual friend asked me to have a look at the chat conversation.
- I joined the chat, and asked the original answerer to delete their answer because, although it was perfectly usable as an answer, he was high-reputation and she was low-reputation and if he honestly did not care about points, then he should be OK with paying that small cost to avoid the appearance of plagiarism. He conceded to this point and did so, but not without a significant amount of patronizing comments.
- Our mutual friend knows a stack exchange developer as well, and asked what to do about this, she was referred to a moderator, who she then asked to look at the conversation.
As a result of these events, Julia and our mutual friend both received warning messages from moderators, and Julia received a 7-day suspension. The message to Julia said "other users were merely trying to help", and that "no one is copying you", but it is not clear how Julia was supposed to know these things given SO's fairly opaque user interface when it comes to tracking provenance of edits for (relatively) low-reputation users.
This timeline raises a number of questions:
- Why were there warnings issued at all? Based on what rules?
- Why was our mutual friend given a warning about "bullying" when she got a moderator involved specifically to make sure things were being adjudicated by the rules of the site?
- Where are the rules that say that summoning allies and colleagues to a conversation is forbidden?
- Why was Julia given an immediate suspension rather than a warning and a reference to the relevant portions of the code of conduct?
- How did the moderators know that the other account was not a sock puppet, and more importantly,
- how was Julia supposed to know that without special moderator spectacles on?
Note please that in summoning me, Julia did not summon a horde of trolls to complain with a social-media cattle call, but rather a specific ally for a specific purpose (someone with high enough reputation to see what was going on in ways that she potentially couldn't). By blaming her for summoning help, the SO moderator in this case has denied that I have responsibility for my own actions.
Throughout the conversation, all of these interactions reeked of the kind of implicit sexism that pervades the tech industry. Then, two women participating were warned, apparently for accusing the other answerer of things, but my sternly-worded accusation of sexism apparently didn't even warrant a brief contact from a moderator. I am open to another explanation as to why, but the default "because I don't present as female in this conversation" is too obvious to ignore.
I feel like the rules here are poorly explained and inconsistently applied, so I don't think anyone deserves a suspension. Perhaps a moderator should have contacted Julia and explained how some of these site features worked, how to determine whether there was or was not plagiarism, and given other escalation channels to use in the future. However, if there is a good reason that she was suspended, I feel like I should have a similar length of suspension, or at the very least a warning from a moderator.
I want to be clear about this part - asking for a suspension for myself is not a rhetorical device. If I am given a 7-day suspension on SO as a result of posting this I will feel that SO is at least a little bit fairer; I won't complain. I will still be annoyed about an opaque and arbitrary moderation process apparently run by people with no knowledge of or sympathy for the average experience of women in the software industry, but at least there will be an appearance of fairness.
If Stack Overflow is not going to have a reputation for being the same sort of scummy, sexist and racist space as other internet forums, these sorts of problems need to be dealt with with far greater transparency and clarity. For example, another really necessary step here would be a clear explanation of what a low-reputation user should do in situations like this. If it's against the rules to call for allies, and "bullying" to summon a moderator, then what options remain?