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Welcome to the Unicorn Meta Zoo, a podcast by members of the Stack Exchange community team. If you want to avoid spoilers, jump straight to the audio.

Participants

Cesar M Jon Ericson

An interview with Cesar M, our newest community manager.

Links

Transcript

Some users have generously volunteered to transcribe episodes on the podcast wiki.

Meta

Jon Ericson interviewed several community managers at our most recent meet-up. There were three questions:

  1. What, if anything, gets you excited about your job?
  2. How did your life experience before Stack Exchange prepare you for this role?
  3. What is your favorite site?

We're running these interviews for the summer (or winter, if you are in the southern hemisphere) and we'll be back to the regular format around August.

What do you think?

Take a listen and respond in the answers below.

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Stack Overflow wasn't designed to be a place for people to interact with others. It was molded very early on to center around documenting information in an easier to find format. This is a stark contrast with the kinds of forums you describe as part of your early ventures into community management.

And that fact has an extremely important implication on measuring success. It means that participation metrics are not an indicator of success. On the contrary, it means that if new questions dwindle on mature technologies, then that can be an indication that we've succeed at documenting a lot of the information people need, whereas a steady or increasing rate of questions might mean we've failed at doing so. Stack Overflow is essentially designed to work itself out of a job, although it never will because technologies emerge and change constantly.

There is one data point that you didn't mention, and because of Stack Overflow's unique purpose, it's actually the most important one of all: views. Having questions that deliver a great deal of value to future users and can be found easily is vastly more valuable than most of the activities users engage in. Indeed, most of the moderation your veterans undertake is work no one really wants to do. It's not fun or entertaining or even satisfying. When we do it, we do so out of a sense that it's necessary to preserve the thing we do want: a body of useful, clear, searchable questions with accessible answers.

To many of us, it seems that SO the company has forgotten these values. Almost all the data emphasis has been on increasing participation in some form or another, which just creates more of the work we don't want to do and buries the things we actually want to spend time on. A passerby who finds a question mildly interesting or who just wants to answer to get reputation or disagrees with a downvote can skew your vote-base measurements of quality. There is no interest in even analyzing whether questions have any long term value or not. This approach to your community has led to a great deal of lost trust in the company. The continued emphasis on the activities you mention in this talk are only going to make your user base lose more trust.

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    I'd actually disagree - how we interact with others and the communities that form around it are kind of something that often works in the favour of many SE communities. No one's going to invest time and effort with no payback, and community is a payback. We're not automata, focused on just curation and answering. – Journeyman Geek Jul 3 at 11:52
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    @JourneymanGeek Is community interaction more important than the goal the community exists to achieve? If so, then why is this closed? It's certainly a great question from the perspective of community building; people loved it. The reason it's closed is because the community exists as a necessary concession to generate and curate the content, not for the purpose of socializing. We are not automatons, but we are here for this specific purpose nonetheless. This is why any community focused activities are siphoned off to Metas and chats. – jpmc26 Jul 3 at 12:10
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    That's assuming having healthy communities and scope curation are at odds. Dealing with popular though off topic posts is a problem roughly as old as the network. A significant issue is how people interact with each other when helping curate and post on the site. Active participation and fresh users make for a healthy site. – Journeyman Geek Jul 3 at 12:40
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    @JourneymanGeek Only if their participation contributes to accomplishing the goal of generating the kind of content we're aiming for. Otherwise, it's a net drain on the community, and that makes it unhealthy. SO experiences far, far more of this kind of unhealthy participation than it does of the helpful kind. If other sites don't, then great, re-emphasizing these values won't change much for them, but SO desperately needs to know that the company is still behind these values and needs to see them acting on those values. Most communication and actions indicate the abandonment of them. – jpmc26 Jul 3 at 12:42
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    On the other hand - I've seen first hand, in other communities what somewhat singleminded focus on quality control even before folks have gotten their feet wet can do. If we're thinking of folks as a "drain" rather than seeing that some folks could find their feet -we're just going to just chase people off. As a moderator, and a senior member of my community - I would rather be a sheepdog than a gatekeeper. Those questions are not going to write themselves, nor are the answers. – Journeyman Geek Jul 3 at 13:22
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    @JourneymanGeek The point is that you can't sacrifice the goal at the expense of participation and then claim success. That's what we're seeing the company do, and it's literally driving the community apart. If we're having a user influx problem, sure, let's address that, but not by trading content quality for social justice. There is no "welcoming" way to address quality problems; telling someone their content doesn't meet standards is always going to be unpleasant. If you make "welcoming" a higher priority than quality, then you're abandoning the original goal. – jpmc26 Jul 3 at 13:37
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    You can totally do that 'nicely'. You can build tooling to make it easier, you can filter out stuff before it hits the site. If I've got any issues with SE's management, its that they ignored the community and Q&A too long for various schemes that didn't quite work out. If you're going to make 'gatekeeping' your main reason for being here, there's not going to be that much of a community left – Journeyman Geek Jul 3 at 13:41
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    @jpmc26 my thoughts on this are bigger than what comments here can handle, but I'll try to sum it up. Yes, I completely understand that content is the business goal of Q&A. One of the frameworks I work with for setting up community goals and metrics even has content as an option - so that is a valid one. On the other hand, I don't believe multiple people working together towards a goal is Community (and there's disagreement, it was actually a big talk we had during our meetup) - but, academically speaking, that is not enough to form a Community. (cont) – Cesar M Jul 3 at 16:59
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    So, I do think we need other activities and ways to build Community Proper around the Q&A with a heavy content goal. It can be in chat, it can be in meta, it can be any other platform or activity we want to host and people want to attend. I know there are professional CMs who disagree with me on the statement: "Several people working together towards a goal is not a community" but I stand by it - and the discussion on the why's and how's is a long, theoretical, one. I believe that is a great situation for Community to emerge from, but not evidence of its existence proper. (+1) – Cesar M Jul 3 at 17:02
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    @JourneymanGeek Having a machine tell people that their question or answer isn't good is not nicer than having a person do it. It's still going to make the author feel frustrated and rejected. You can try to soften that blow, but there's nothing inherently nice and certainly nothing welcoming about dealing it. That's why SO can't have it both ways. The company has to choose which one it values more: people participating or preserving the long term value of the site's content. The former means destroying the existing community by rejecting their values; the latter means fewer people. – jpmc26 Jul 3 at 18:41
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    @CesarM "...it doesn't mean I want to see or believe we need more interactions between people in the Q&A site proper, no." I'm glad to hear you say this, but it goes against much of what the rest of your company's staff has said. Take a look at the Tumbleweed discussions, for instance. The entire discussion was built around the idea that increased participation represented success. – jpmc26 Jul 3 at 18:47
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    There's literally no reason we need to pick one or the other. Those two things literally are not at odds with – Journeyman Geek Jul 4 at 0:13
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    @JourneymanGeek The empirical evidence of the low quality of questions flooding SO suggests your hypothesis is wrong. Furthermore, you haven't refuted my point that it's inherently unwelcoming to tell someone that their question is low quality, whether it's done by machine or human. Either we stop discouraging them so they'll stay, or we keep discouraging them by enforcing quality standards. There really isn't a middle option. – jpmc26 Jul 4 at 0:20
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    @JourneymanGeek Furthermore, the standard of SO employees on what constitutes "welcoming" is so far beyond the pale that it certainly does preclude having quality content. Jon Ericson asserted that someone telling him he was going to create security problems and fill up his servers' disk was unwelcoming. Apparently we can't even tell someone the technical reasons why what they're asking to do is a bad idea because it's "condescending" and that discourages participation. – jpmc26 Jul 4 at 0:26
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    @HostileFork And working to change that perception is fine. But blaming the community's efforts to protect the quality of the site for it is not. Changing the perception has to acknowledge the appropriateness of moderating content first and then work on informing outsiders of our model. It also has to understand that some people will never buy into the model and that we can't pander to them with efforts to make the site "nicer" that impose an unreasonable burden on and undue villianization of users trying to moderate. – jpmc26 Jul 11 at 15:11
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Thank you! I enjoyed learning more about your background and your ideas about using data and meeting both company and user needs. I look forward to more concrete ideas than will fit in a 13-minute podcast.

When asked what your favorite network site is, you said Writing and also Board & Card Games and RPG. You also said that you haven't posted on Writing and have posted on each of the others once. Since your attraction isn't yet coming from heavy participation (we hope that'll change... :-) ), can you say more about what is working for you in these communities? I know you have personal interests in all three areas, which is presumably what got you to check them out in the first place, but what made you stay? Interesting questions, quality of answers, engaged communities, levels of activity, something else?

You're just one person, sure, but anecdata from a professional community manager who's new to our network would be really valuable for communities that are trying to grow and improve (and in two of the three cases, emerge from "beta").

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    I'm afraid my answer will disappoint a bit - as for the Communities, it was started as personal interest due to my background and I stayed for the "huh, that's interesting" factor on questions. I find it hard to answer in Writing, to be honest, as it's outside my professional area of expertise for a while now, and feels like most questions I can't wrap my head around a good answer! My participation in RPG & BG have been also mostly personal (Somewhat of it was getting familiar with the SE software/platform too). And as for thoughts on Community - I don't have many to share publicly, yet... – Cesar M Jul 3 at 4:36
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    Though that may change in the near future as we do have things planned for this quarter in terms of delivering improvements for Q&A and Mod tools, I've been also asking questions around the team on - "huh, why don't we have that" or "why that is the way there is?" and re-learning SQL and looking at some voting patterns/escalated issues. I haven't dug super deep into our communities lifecycle so I can't share any specific advice there, I do know that's also something we're looking to touch on and speak more about soon. I think the biggest for me so far have been the "interesting question" side. – Cesar M Jul 3 at 4:39
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    @CesarM: As a totally 100% unbiased observer, I'd like to encourage you to participate more in RPG.SE! ;) – V2Blast Jul 3 at 5:33

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