Recently, it was announced that the "Hot on Meta" questions would no longer show up on the SO sidebar. Sara Chipps elaborated a little bit on why:
Stack Overflow Employees have panic attacks and nightmares when they know they will need to post something to Meta. They are real human beings that are affected by the way people speak to them. [...] I can’t sleep at night knowing that we are forcing people to participate here as part of their jobs.
We're removing Hot on Meta as I don't want to send new people to a place where people have these experiences. Full stop.
And she added in the comments (later moved to chat):
[...]the psychological safety for employees is the reason for moving our communications to the blog from Meta.
It seems like the company is under the impression that meta as a whole is toxic to everybody, and so wants to discourage people participating there. At least, I don't see any other way that there would be a connection between meta figuratively eating employees alive and removing the Hot Meta Posts list, which is for community members to find what's happening on meta.
I believe that the company is basing this on the... less than ideal experiences that Stack Overflow staff have on meta on those occasions where they must post to meta.
I don't want to discuss whether or not removing the Hot Meta Posts was the right move; that's a discussion for another place. What I want to get into here is the underlying reasons why Stack Overflow staff have such bad experiences, and what we might be able to do to mitigate that.
With the exception of the dedicated, understaffed, and overworked Community Manager team, most Stack Overflow employees lately (the last year or so, possibly a drop longer) have had their posts greeted with what is often an extremely negative response - with the posts receiving half a thousand downvotes, hundreds of complaining comments, and dozens of answers going "you did bad".
I believe the current issue with such negative responses can be traced at least back to when Joe Friend was posting about the design changes that were coming to the network. People were, understandably, upset, and they made staff very aware of this. This is, from what I've seen, roughly when the current trend of employees getting extremely negative receptions began.
And, in all likelihood, is a large part of why it began.
To get a better understanding of why and how this caused the current situation, we'll need to take yet another step back and take a look at the context of the couple years before that.
A Not-So-Short History Lesson
For quite a while, it felt like Stack Exchange (the platform) was stagnating - not the content, but any development and improvement of the features of the core Q&A feature. Sure, there were tweaks, but it felt like on the whole, Q&A was a "finished" product. Users were asking, and answering, and moderating, and getting by with what they had. There were things that could be improved, and things that were breaking and held together by duct tape - such as the close vote review queue, or the new user onboarding process - but there didn't really seem to be any chance of changes. Stack Overflow, on the business side, was focused on Jobs and Enterprise.
Then, two years ago (July 2017), came something really exciting: The DAG team! The point of the DAG team was to work on improving on Q&A and help it in this stage of its life. There were lots of familiar faces there, along with a bunch of new ones. It held a ton of potential, and people were very excited - maybe we'd finally be able to overhaul the "Ask a Question" page and prevent new users from getting stuck so often in posting questions! Maybe we'd be able to finally sort out the problems with the huge review backlogs! The possibilities were nearly endless.
We waited eagerly for updates. They were rare. And when they came, it was mostly concentrated on Meta.SO, hidden from the rest of the network. Still, at least it was something.
And then... disaster struck. In November 2017, Stack Overflow abruptly let go of a large percentage of its staff - including large swaths of the relatively new DAG team. People were devastated - not only were some of the most familiar faces around the network suddenly not around anymore, but now who was going to do the work that we were all so excited about?
A couple months went by, and the dust started to settle. I had accepted that the changes that we'd been waiting for were probably not going to happen now.
But then... rumors. Channels. Private Q&A for small groups. Could it be?
It was. Teams came, which included the good news of Q&A getting some improvement also - it hadn't been completely thrown out like I'd thought after all! This was confirmed by the posting of Ch-ch-ch-changes: Left nav, responsive design, & themes (and the fact that I was in the Channels / Teams beta). Some of the excitement came back - it wasn't exactly what we'd wanted, but at least they were doing something, right? After they'd done all their fiddling with the responsive design and stuff, they'd get back to helping us with the problems we had, right? Right? ...right?
Nope. That's not how the next few months went. At all.
A lot of stuff happened in early 2018 - all at roughly the same time, the repercussions of which are still being felt today. The way I see it, there were two main things that happened, all of which were made of lots of smaller parts:
First of all, in preparation for the responsive design, the sites were getting re-designed. This in the first place made a lot of people very angry, because the redesign for a lot of sites consisted of, from their point of view, completely stripping down their theme and turning it... really basic. I'll readily admit I'm still sore over the design that Science Fiction & Fantasy ended up with - a pale reflection of the once grand design it had previously.
And the worst part of this wasn't that the redesigns were happening - it's that it felt that our feedback was being totally ignored. With a few exceptions (Worldbuilding robot, yay!), on the whole it felt that SE was just moving forward without taking into account the feedback they were getting from their users. Of course, this isn't true - but it was a very prevalent attitude due to the lack of visible responses.
the Welcome Wagon began
That attitude - the feeling of being ignored - became very much more prevalent as soon as something else happened. Something on the site was brought to the attention of someone with admirable goals - to better the web for especially women and other unrepresented groups in tech. Something on Stack Overflow was brought to her attention, and through Twitter, she made her displeasure known.
And Stack Overflow (the company) reacted. Quickly. And strongly.
Due to a few Twitter threads, Stack Overflow quickly took action, determined to keep a good public face. Posts were made about keeping comments civil, and chat, a new Code of Conduct was written...
And thus, (the current iteration of) the Welcome Wagon was born.
(Note: I'm not saying that the new policies on chat, comments etc were a bad thing. Quite the opposite. They were in fact long overdue. The issue was that it was sparked by a Twitter thread, instead of internal discussion.)
The Welcome Wagon
The Welcome Wagon is the name of Stack Overflow's drive to make the site less "unwelcoming". It aims to cut back on "toxicity", make the site more friendly for everyone, and help everything remain civil.
Sounds great, no? On the surface, it seemed like nothing could go wrong with such a project.
One of the priorities of the project was to cut back on the negative effect of toxic comments and such for new users. Stack Overflow had always had a reputation for being "cliquey" and was "gatekeeping". It was time to change that.
Except... there was a problem here. Who was doing this "gatekeeping" - and so, who was being blamed for being "unwelcoming"? It was the power users - the ones who spent hours of their day answering questions, reviewing other people's posts, editing, flagging, and keeping the site clean. It's the 0.015% who were keeping the site running who were now being turned on by the very site that they poured out their sweat and blood for and being told that they were responsible for being "toxic" and "unwelcoming".
Take a moment and look at it from their perspective.
For years, you have been working on cleaning up an oil drip out of a beautiful lake with a spoon, but the small spoon you have is actually a fork. You've spent years asking for at least a spoon to work with, but have gotten nothing. For some reason, though, you keep at it with the fork, for different reasons - some are the people next to you also working with forks, some are the occasional diamond that you can clean and set and make nice - all for free and out of your own time.
Then, one day, someone cuts down all of the trees surrounding the lake. You try to stop them, but they are deaf to your pleas. All the trees are suddenly gone, and you're left feeling like nobody listens to you. The lake is no longer the same beautiful lake it was, but you keep working at it.
Then, a week later, the lake starts shouting at you about how the fork you're using is being unfair to the oil - that you're being too unwelcoming to the oil and not treating it properly, completely ignoring the fact that you've been using a fork and have been asking for better tools for years. The lake slaps you anyway.
This is roughly how the power users were feeling at this point in time - roughly summer 2018 at this point. Understandably, a lot of people were quite frustrated (and I'll readily admit I was not happy with the situation either). Many people left - which didn't exactly make things easier.
This is the feeling that a lot of people were left with after summer 2018, a year ago. Along with this came a large distrust for staff. They'd been burned by staff too many times. They had been ignored, beaten up, and yet were still expected to continue producing the water that the lake needed and depended on, so to speak, for free.
A bit later, in October 2018, a single Twitter post caused Interpersonal Skills to be kicked out of the HNQ for months. A single Tweet caused a massive change that killed off 80% of the site's traffic, without any communication with the community - or even an announcement that it has happened. It was only discovered because I happened to see the relevant thread on Twitter and mentioned it in chat that IPS was now off the HNQ.
This finally made things very clear. Stack Exchange cared more about how they're perceived by a single person on Twitter than what effect making a change like that would have on a site, and didn't care enough about the community to even let the general IPS community know about the change.
In the end, this led to some very positive changes - months later, IPS was reinstated to the HNQ, after the HNQ itself received a long-overdue update, including the ability for mods to kick a question off the HNQ - but that didn't change the fact this all this was kicked off by a single Tweet, instead of the literal years of requests to fix the HNQ made by the crowd of power users that provided the backbone of the SE network - all the content that SE relies on to attract people to their sites.
Since then, there has been an even more severe distrust of staff. The prevailing feeling is that Stack Exchange no longer cares what its users think. The power users had been making requests for help in improved tooling to sustain things for years, and SE didn't do a thing - and instead then bit them for the way they'd been going around things. SE was not listening at all to what people were saying on meta, and cared more about people who didn't even use the sites. Later, the ad fiasco and front page issues caused even more lost trust.
And so, people started reacting very badly to the staff's posts. SE hadn't only lost all trust - they'd lost all respect that people had for them, too. People started being more snarky and condescending and toxic to staff, because of the way they'd been treated by staff. As a result of the negativity, staff withdrew largely from meta sites and took a more backseat role, leaving the only communication with the users to the overworked CM team.
And then, a different problem started. Because of the lack of interaction from the staff, new staff members in particular ended up being completely unaware of site culture and nuances, and had no idea how to use meta. This ended up in scrapes, especially when these hapless new staff members were bearers of (to the meta audience) bad news. The fact that staff members posting was now such a rare event didn't help - because of the rarity of the event, people piled on more in order to have staff hear what they had to say.
And because of the sheer number of people piling on, it no longer mattered how polite these people commenting were being. As Sara herself pointed out recently, once enough people are piling on to complain or tell you what's wrong with what you did, you're going to feel attacked - even if every single comment is worded politely and respectfully.
And so here we are. On the one hand, we've got a handful of bitter, angry, beaten up and ignored core users, who do all the moderation of the site and provide a large percentage of the answers that makes Stack Exchange what it is. On the other hand, we have poor unsuspecting staff who are getting piled on by those above users simply because a.) they're bearing bad news and b.) they're staff.
This is untenable.
All that this is doing is making things even worse between staff and users. We need to resolve the problem on both sides - blaming just one side is not going to do anything, like the post I quoted at the beginning.
How do we begin to resolve this?
So I believe I've identified the core issue here: Neither side has respect or trust left for the other. What we have to do, then, is to start by rebuilding some bridges.
SE is currently working on improving some of the mod and high rep tools. This is a good start. However, it's been mostly stuff like the mod dashboard or the tag synonym system, which, while not unimportant, are not exactly the most pressing moderation-related tooling issues.
If SE wants to try to mend relationships with its power users and regain some trust, the current best way to do that, in my opinion, would be, as a gesture of good faith, to work with the community on an issue that has been going on for years: The close vote queue.
Key here, though, are the words "work with the community". This is the most important part - even if it's not the close vote queue that is getting worked on.
Having Stack Exchange work with the community on a project that would benefit everybody, while listening and responding to feedback on the best ways to go about this, will help tremendously in regaining trust and respect for SE.
Work on a project that has been ignored for far too long. The review queue issue is not only constrained to Stack Overflow, where users are refusing to review in protest - English Language & Usage as well as English Language Learners are both suffering from stuffed-up review queues as well. Or if it's not the close vote queue, something else. Doesn't matter. The important part is that Stack Exchange shows the community that they are willing to listen, willing to work with the community, ready to acknowledge their mistakes, and move forwards.
As an example of a good way of moving forward with this, see Megan Risdal's post at The world is big and I am SO small. What are the implications for our meta community with the changes in Stack Overflow?. This is a good step forward; it shows a clear desire to work with the community and gives concrete examples on how. We need more of this - and not just in a single post on Meta Stack Overflow, but also on Meta.SE, for the entire network. Staff and users need to work more closely together to redevelop trust and respect.
There will still be people who will attack staff members. This is where the moderators come in. There are moderators here on Meta.SE now - there are people to handle this stuff. There are 26 moderators on Stack Overflow who can handle deleting comments. Talk to the moderators - they're willing to help. Stack just needs to communicate more with the people who keep their sites running, and work together with them. Let them know that you value their input, not ignoring them in favor of the people who come to post 1-line "I'm having this issue too" and then complain because it's unfriendly that we deleted it.
I'd go so far as to suggest that Stack Exchange let the mods know if they're going to be posting something that might be controversial. Possibly even announce seemingly minor feature changes and collect feedback before they go live. Have the mods keep an eye on the comments - strictly deleting ones that aren't asking clarification or ones that are rude. But simply hiding and refusing to engage with the community of people who spend their free time cleaning up your site for free is not going to be sustainable.
Employees and users need to interact more. They need to learn on both sides that the others are human as well, and doing the best they can with what they have. More interaction is the key, not less. It shouldn't be a rare sight to see a staff member post on meta. I'd suggest that new employees even hang out in, say, the Teachers' Lounge and get a feel for the people before trying to engage on meta - because it'll take a while until SE earns back the trust and respect they lost. It will take quite a while before people are ready. But the sooner that Stack Overflow as a company takes steps to address the problems they've been ignoring - and thus making worse - for years, causing the loss of respect, the sooner people will be able to start the mending process.
The Stack Overflow I wish to build and participate in is no longer supported on Meta Stack Overflow
Declaring a Review strike until efficiency improvements are implemented on Meta Stack Overflow
The world is big and I am SO small. What are the implications for our meta community with the changes in Stack Overflow? on Meta Stack Overflow
Require Participation in a Community Before Making Decisions that Affect That Community's Future on Meta Stack Overflow
What caused this site to be excluded from Hot Network Questions? on Meta Interpersonal Skills
What changes have resulted from SE network sites becoming a source of income? on Meta Stack Exchange
If 95%+ of comments have been rated as "fine", does the site deserve its reputation of "unwelcoming"? Do we still need to focus on it? on Meta Stack Exchange
What are the effective communication channels for effecting change to SE? on Meta Stack Exchange
New home page makes it seem like SO doesn't allow free use any more on Meta Stack Overflow
Ads on SE sites are excessively animated, irrelevant, dubious and resource-intensive on Meta Stack Exchange