This is a topic near and dear to my heart...
This makes me think there's something systemic that's contributing, something that works against good people trying to do good things.
That thing is people. I'm not saying here that people are inherently evil and any non-trivial concentration of people turns into some sort of carefully-concentrated balsamic vinegar of badness*... But rather, that the process of meta-discussion invariably turns people away from their shared goals, distracts them from their original purpose, and invites them to fixate on trivialities. Then that old narcissism of small differences kicks in, and folks refuse to recognize the humanity of those who don't smoke the right cigarettes, er, repeat the same memes. And then nothing gets done.
Jeff observes the same in that old blog post you linked:
Meta-work becomes a reflex, a habit, an addiction, and ultimately a replacement for real productive work.
So you might well ask, if this is so well known - by the site's founders, by current staff... Then why have this site - why have 170-some meta sites - at all? Jeff hints at this in a follow-up blog post:
We now know that meta participation is the source of all meaningful leadership and governance in a community, so it is cultivated and monitored closely.
So, what then? Meta-work is evil and leads to pointless bickering, but is also the source of all meaningful leadership? This sounds like a recipe for painful cognitive dissonance, not productive, harmonious collaboration! WTF, Jeff?!
Sharpening your saw without keeping your nose to the grindstone
I found the answer to this in one of those stupid corporate fables:
"Excuse me Mr. Lumberjack, but I couldn't help noticing how hard you are working on that tree, but going nowhere." The lumberjack replies with sweat dripping off of his brow, "Yes... I know. This tree seems to be giving me some trouble." The bystander replies and says, "But Mr. Lumberjack, your saw is so dull that it couldn't possibly cut through anything." "I know", says the lumberjack, "but I am too busy sawing to take time to sharpen my saw."
I like this story in spite of its provenance because... It's true to life. If you've ever spent a day cutting anything, you know the importance of pausing now and then to sharpen your tools - you will literally never get done if you fail to do this, no matter how hard you work. But... You can't spend all of your time sharpening either - at some point, you have to put the stone away and start sawing.
Meta is a good place to sharpen saws. But spend too much time here, and nothing gets done. And eventually... We'll find we've ground the saw down to nothing.
The solution you seek then lies in finding a balance. Meta need not be murder... But the dose makes the poison.
Granted I am a babbler, a harmless vexatious babbler, like all of us.
-- Fyodor Dostoyevsky, from his book about Meta
To every thing there is a season
As we all know, this problem is hardly limited to a handful of sites on the Internet (or 19th-century Russian bureaucrats). Each of us must find a way to balance myriad meta matters in our daily lives, whether that be cataloging bugs vs fixing them or literally sharpening tools vs. cutting. This thing we struggle with here... Is in many ways a fundamental part of the human condition, as familiar and unavoidable as death, sore feet and insufferable government officials.
And we know that nearly everyone struggles to find this balance to some degree, with varying amounts of success, and with various points at which each of us deems ourselves sufficiently "balanced" and kinda just accepts our life for what it is - perhaps even taking delight in our own flaws, until such a time as they make life intolerable and we rage-quit.
We know then, that just as some folks will cheerfully live in a messy house while others will clean and organize obsessively without stopping to do anything else, so too must there be a distribution of meta-users ranging from those who would participate here only under duress to those who can't seem to stop themselves even when they should be in bed asleep. This is normal, expected, and neither a problem nor a solution to a problem.
What is a problem is that, after 10 solid years of running these meta sites... We still don't do much to set expectations for how they should be used. There's, uh... A short help center article, a FAQ and a bunch of frequently-asked questions, but when it comes to the basics...
- How do I start a constructive discussion?
- How do I participate in a discussion constructively?
- How do I report a bug?
- How do I propose a new feature?
- How do I chime in on a proposed feature from 10 years ago that still hasn't been implemented?
- How do I get help using one of these sites?
- When should I upvote / downvote / edit / flag / close / run in circles scream and shout?
...we kinda just expect folks to poke around and figure it out. And then get short with them when they don't. In other words, we have the same problems here that we have on normal Q&A sites - high expectations, but poor support. We're spending more time blaming people for using the site wrong than we are trying to help them use it right...
...and I include myself and my co-workers in that "we". Here at Stack Overflow Exchange Global Corporate Headquarters, we've been lamenting this problem for years... But lamenting it doesn't fix it. Some of the suggestions in that thread are just as good now as they were 4.5 years ago, and... also just as unimplemented. That's effectively several new generations of members who've learned to use the site - or left in disgust - with little if any additional help.
And that's on us to fix. Ultimately, that's why I'm taking the time to write this answer. As Jeff wrote all those years ago,
Half of community relationships isn't doing what the community thinks they want at any given time, but simply being there to listen and respond to the community.
Getting new features or changes built out into the software can be a challenge at times, but listening is something we - I - am paid to do here full-time... And I have to confess, I haven't always done the best job there. There's been entirely too much blame being thrown around, particularly over the past year... And far too little listening, acknowledgement, and assistance.
So in the spirit of changing that, here are a few things that you - and I, and anyone else reading this - can do personally to help make Meta a bit less, uh, murdery...
Four tips for kinder, gentler meta work
Focus on goals and problems, not style and personality
We give a lot of lip-service to this idea, but it's easy to forget in the moment when someone is proposing (or announcing) a change that might affect a tool we rely on daily... Particularly when the writing style comes off as arrogant, or the person writing seems to lack the necessary experience to adequately judge the effects of what they're proposing.
But just because their suggestion is... Not good... Doesn't mean it wasn't inspired by a real problem or a worthwhile goal. If you're able to recognize that underlying motivation, you can address that instead of just shooting down their idea.
Edit, edit, edit
I've written about this before, but it's still a good idea: if you can jump on a question that's likely to do poorly before it's too far gone, you may be able to fix it. A heroic edit is not a trivial undertaking... But for those with the skill and experience necessary, it can be one of the kindest and most effective acts.
Answer, don't comment
This is definitely one that I need to get better about following myself, as do many of my colleagues. We know good and well that long comment threads under a question are rarely productive... So when we engage in them anyway, it just sets a bad example for everyone else. This doesn't apply to linking related posts, asking for clarification, etc... But as soon as you start to write an opinion or provide anything approaching an answer - consider taking the time to write it out as an actual answer.
Focus on your own votes, not others'
So much has been made of voting on meta over the years... Usually other people's meta voting. Because of course every single vote you and I cast is well-considered and justly deserved, right? It's those other people who are just voting all wrong.
Except, we have a LOT more control over our own votes than we do others'. And none of us is using anywhere near as many votes as we could. Some of us are barely voting at all. So next time you see a post that you feel is under-rated (or over-rated!) take that as a reminder to vote on it... And on every other post you've read and neglected to vote on. And I'll try to do so as well.
Haven't you said all this before? What's the point of writing it again?
Yes, I've babbled here a lot - more than almost anyone else. So in a sense, anything I write here about meta participation is as much self-flagellation as it is anything else... But I never took the time to post a Dostoyevsky quote about this activity before, nor have I ever used that "spark joy" meme anywhere, so I felt it was high time I remedied both omissions. I'm frankly amazed you're still reading after that. As your reward for making it this far, here's a footnote that directly contradicts my first paragraph:
*they are though, and do.