-10

or, Is Stack Overflow beginning to prioritise profit over all else?

Edit: No. No it is not. There was a brief hairy period, but it's still the Stack Overflow we all know and love. I no longer agree with the contents of this question.


There have recently been some notices that have caused a lot of controversy. In order of me noticing them:

I'd like to draw some attention to that banner. Here it is, written out in full:

This site uses cookies to deliver our services and to show you relevant ads and job listings. By using our site, you acknowledge that you have read and understand our Cookie Policy, Privacy Policy, and our Terms of Service. Your use of Stack Overflow’s Products and Services, including the Stack Overflow Network, is subject to these policies and terms.

For those of you who don't know, Stack Overflow collects some information about you. You can see what information they've got about you here, and opt-out by the same link.

This banner is shown to all visitors of the site, not just those who are signed in. And I'd like to draw your attention to the first sentence, which has finally tripped my internal heuristics for whether to trust a site:

This site uses cookies to deliver our services and to show you relevant ads and job listings.

This message is shown to users who aren't signed in. Is Stack Overflow really collecting data on users who never explicitly consented and are unable to opt out without creating an account, then using this data to target advertisements? Using cookies for this purpose, as opposed to just for authentication, strongly suggests that Stack Overflow is, indeed, collecting data about unauthenticated users. If anybody had asked me three months ago, I would have given Stack Overflow the benefit of the doubt... but now I'm not so sure.

The bigger picture

There's a trend here. Every single one of these changes benefits Stack Overflow more than it does the rest of the community. Some of them seem to have honourable intentions, such as the Text Ads, but the majority go against the perceived ethos of the community as a whole or are directly detrimental to the community or the resource we are creating together.

Please don't continue this trend. As much as I never wanted to say these words, I want the old Stack Overflow back. And I don't want to wait before that's not possible.

  • I really hope I'm just being paranoid. :-) – wizzwizz4 May 23 '18 at 16:51
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    "I want the old Stack Overflow back." Read up the essence of my nick-name. – πάντα ῥεῖ May 23 '18 at 16:56
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    These things were already happening, its just there was no legal requirement for you to be notified really. Now there is. – Mgetz May 23 '18 at 16:56
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    Meh, they gotta make a little cash. Servers eat money. We eat bandwidth. And pie. – Won't May 23 '18 at 17:21
  • @Won't I'm all for them making cash. It's making cash at the expense of the community and the sites that I have problems with. – wizzwizz4 May 23 '18 at 17:26
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    "At the expense"? How so? – Won't May 23 '18 at 17:27
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    Stack Overflow (the company) has always had to prioritize Stack Overflow (the site) and other financially profitable ventures. I think that it's just become more and more apparent as the network expanded. Those of us who (largely) use only the smaller sites might take it the wrong way, but to some extent, it's necessary for the survival of the company and the network as a whole. The money has to come from somewhere, after all. Regrettably, waffles and unicorns aren't as profitable as they used to be. – HDE 226868 May 23 '18 at 17:30
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Using cookies for this purpose, as opposed to just for authentication, strongly suggests that Stack Overflow is, indeed, collecting data about unauthenticated users.

Even more strongly suggested by a series of blog posts detailing this specific thing:

  • Providence: Machine Learning At Stack Exchange -- Kevin Montrose, 2015/1/27

    Providence analyzes our traffic logs to predict some simple labels (like “is a web developer” or “uses the Java technology stack”) for each person who visits our site. ... While we can’t release the Stack Overflow traffic logs for privacy reasons, we believe it’s in the best interest of the community for us to document the ways we’re using it. Accordingly, this is the first post in a series on the Providence project. ...

    Followed by part 2, part 3, and...

  • Stack Overflow – Counting Developers with Providence -- Kevin Troy, 2016/11/29

    The way we captured the developer trends data changed this year as we rebuilt our data analysis platform called Providence. Providence is our machine learning platform that tracks user behaviour on Stack Overflow. It analyses the questions and answers that users interact with, in order to determine what sort of technologies an individual works with. (If you’d like to see your own Providence record, you can access it here.)

    ...

    Tens of millions of questions are viewed (by many millions of developers) on Stack Overflow daily. To properly analyze the many weeks worth of data that are required to build a global understanding of the developer landscape, our early system took a probabilistic approach — sampling our data to ease computational requirements. In the last year we have moved away from probabilistic approaches to more precise ones.

Note that there seems to be something about this sort of work that attracts people named Kevin. However, we do not currently support targeting machine learning job ads at people named Kevin.

More importantly, note that both Kevins' posts link to this page which allows you to download or disable tracking of your activity. This functions even if you don't have an account on any Stack Exchange site - and has functioned this way since early 2015 when we introduced it.

The big change now is that we're obnoxiously notifying everyone of it instead of relying on them reading the blog. That's... probably an improvement.

  • Phew! That's a relief. Is there any way I can downvote my question? – wizzwizz4 May 24 '18 at 6:18

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