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The recent firing of a beloved moderator has created a crisis. Moderators are leaving. Users are up in arms. Much energy is expended in reading/writing/commenting on meta posts. More critically for them, Stack Overflow (as a company) is getting hammered by negative comments and feelings.

Update:

SO has published a followup apology and their turnaround plan. It goes a long way to address the actions I had proposed below, except for one critical part. See here for my response.


A crisis needs a turnaround plan. Here is a modest proposal for actions Stack Overflow (as a company) could take to manage the crisis. We should, as a community, help shape the action plan which will get all of us out of this current sorry state of affairs so we can focus again on what we love best: asking and answering content questions.

I welcome comments, additions and alternative proposals as answers, and if helpful, will do my best to update this post to reflect the feedback.

1. Acknowledge the crisis

The first update apology was not well received. It was judged by many to be tone-deaf and not to acknowledge the harm the community is feeling. The next update needs to acknowledge the facts, mistakes and feelings of Monica and the community. George Stocker's proposal is a great start.

Since crisis management starts from senior leadership, it would be a good time for SO's new CEO to step in and publish this apology. This is not about throwing Sara Chipps under the bus but about showing that the highest levels of SO understand the issues and care about solving them.

2. Express regret

It is enough to spend an hour reading the multiple resignation posts to understand the hurt from many of the volunteers who spend countless hours contributing to the network sites. It is also clear Monica was personally hurt, her external reputation damaged by a clumsy press interview and she mentioned in comments spending countless hours not sleeping over the issue.

SO needs to officially ask for forgiveness for the hurt created. It was likely unintended but is real nevertheless and needs acknowledgement and atonement.

3. Take action not to repeat these mistakes

A set of actions should be announced and speedily carried out, at a minimum

  1. retracting libelous public statements that were made in the press if the internal review confirms they do not match the reality
  2. publishing for discussion and quickly implementing a process to remove a moderator (why not start from the existing process?)
  3. publishing for discussion and quickly implementing a process to reinstate a moderator (and could start from Isaac Moses's proposal)
  4. running "Monica's case" through the new moderator reinstatement process and being as transparent as possible, even if in a sanitized way to protect individual privacy
  5. publishing the proposed new Code of Conduct for feedback and comments before implementation

More broadly, the recent crisis is one of a number that recently occurred (e.g., content licensing policy, the IPS HNQ saga). The underlying and fundamental issues behind this series of mistakes need to be understood and addressed. This will likely imply changes in syndicating proposals ahead of time, behavior changes from some SO employees and possibly some personnel changes. This review should be announced now, carried out quickly and its results announced transparently.

4. Prove that real change has occurred

In the end, "the proof is in the pudding". Regaining trust between SO and its users is possible but will require behavior changes. Time will tell how successful this will be.


I believe that most people are inherently good and well-intentioned, and that people and organizations can recognize mistakes and change. Try and focus comments and answers on the crisis turnaround plan, not on whether SO is interested to change.

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    Only if SE managers (and shareholders) really realized what went wrong, and willing to fix it, not just pretend to. – Eric Wang Oct 5 at 18:01
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    How sad! Someone from community has to come up and say to SE Inc to settle things in community back. This should be intrinsic and naturally occuring process from SE's end. And when it is done with the intentions of covering up the mess, believe me mistakes will keep repeating – Karan Desai Oct 5 at 18:09
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    I'm not a big fan of apologies. What I'd rather see is a bit of contrition, statements of intent, and corrective action. – Robert Harvey Oct 5 at 19:23
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    What if the SE / SO leadership do not perceive a crisis? Which end of the telescope one looks through may inform one's view of a series of events. I guess I am asking you: what if they think this is "short term discontent, long term things will settle down." That isn't a perception of crisis. – KorvinStarmast Oct 5 at 19:31
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    Why do all proposals from the community basically say "realize that your wrong"? – Trilarion Oct 5 at 21:01
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    Sara is auditioning for the next "White House Press Secretary" with these posts ... she will never back down at this point, you are wasting your keystrokes. She said, "we stick by our decision", "not interested in re-litigating", what part of that do you not understand? just drop it and go find something else shiny to distract you from your real work. We all wasted a bunch of years here, me a decade, if you wasted less than that on these people, then count your self as a lucky one. – Someone Who Used To Care Oct 6 at 8:28
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    @RobertHarvey - those are the 3 corner stones of a Real Apology that is why people are hung up on it. And they are never going to get it, the hole is dug way too deep at this point. If they were going to do what you and everyone else, myself included thinks is the right thing, they would have done it already. Like the following monday. – Someone Who Used To Care Oct 6 at 8:32
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  • @Raedwald I read your thoughtful answer, and it is indeed a possibility. But if this was the strategy, I would say it is also very poorly executed. There would be much more elegant and rapid ways of achieving this – mbloch Oct 6 at 18:12
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    retracting libelous public statements that were made in the press if the internal review confirms they do not match the reality (+1) – SecretAgentMan Oct 7 at 14:32
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    I don't understand why you accepted an answer. – Tim Oct 7 at 21:18
  • @Tim Frankly, I was also surprised to get the green checkmark on this one. It's not like this discussion reached a conclusion or anything. – Jyrki Lahtonen Oct 8 at 3:12
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What happened was very bad and should have been avoided, but regrettably it was not. In my mind I have been building a narrative of what might have happened behind the scenes. It is 100% speculation and may be more about me projecting my experiences as a diamond-bearer in Math.SE rather than anything resembling what actually happened. I will share it with you anyway, because I think it will serve to frame my suggestions.

A starting point of my train of thought is that

Stack Exchange the company is very short of human resources.

The Wikipedia article states that in 2011 they had a total of 27 employees. Undoubtedly the number has grown since, but probably not by that much. Think about it. 27. It has since grown to 250. While a lot more, that is still relatively little for handling all the technical tasks as well as the legal and PR side. Compare it to the user base. I bring this up, because I think it is relevant here. I will testify that it is easy to fall into the trap and think that the staff is very rich of resources. That comes from all the employees having diamond powers, and the CMs having a final say on many contentious matters. Also, seemingly they control this entire universe. I used to call them Overlords myself before it dawned on me that they truly don't have the resources to fix the problems the sites have.

Why does that low number matter? It means that people at key positions don't always have a team backing them up. Reaching good decisions, whether you are in charge or not, is not easy without having colleagues to consult and to serve as a sounding board. May be they don't have that at SE? Particularly if it's late Friday afternoon, the closest colleagues have already left, a somewhat taxing debate has been going on, and you decide that: Screw this! I'm not gonna drag this matter over the weekend! You're de-modded! Prime conditions for making bad decisions.

We the user communities actually have a lot more human resources (even though unpaid). During my tenure I built what I think were very close ties with two fellow diamond bearers. The team had a total of eight members at a time, but five of them were mostly no-shows, though one of them reactivated upon graduating, getting employed, and moving across the Atlantic. So three amigos + one. We were basically running the place. The point I am getting at is that we had built the kind of rapport that if one of us would be criticized on our site meta, the others would have their back. Even if we would not agree with the criticized action 100% (the moderators have a private chatroom to clear up such disagreements). We would understand the reasons why one of us might err once in a while, when needing to make a call alone. Damn it, it is not for the crowd to toast one of the amigos!

SE staff teams apparently don't have that kind of rapport. One thing that caught my eye is that staff members other than Sara Chipps largely sit on the sidelines twiddling their thumbs in the latest shitstorm. I don't know what happened there. May be Ms. Chipps is the boss and has decided to weather this storm by herself, or the others were told to remain silent? May be she made the fateful decision alone? We don't know. We really need not know for I don't think it's any of our business, for if something like this went wrong, it is best that the SE staff sort it out between themselves.

But the community needs to heal. We have serious disagreements about, IMO, more pressing matters to handle. Thankfully humans, and communities of humans, are very good at healing. And also good at learning from the mistakes.

  • Mistakes. We all make them. Some of them will be visible to more people than we would prefer, but that happens. I committed many mistakes when serving. May be it was second nature to me, may be it was life experience? I dunno. But I always owned my mistakes on our site meta. You see, the crowd is actually quite understanding. For the most part they understood the conditions that lead to the missteps. Not each and every one of them on all occasions, but sufficiently many that the dust would quickly settle. Being completely transparent about my views/thinking also helped maintaining a reasonable level of crowd approval. We all are, by and large, intelligent enough to understand, why things don't always go smoothly.
  • I think this crowd on MSE is not that different from that of Math.SE. It would understand that maybe a mistake was made. Or that maybe something that they cannot share with us lead to it. At one time I faced such a situation, when transparency was impossible. On that occasion an SE CM also came to our meta to back me! Why something similar is not happening here may be a cause for concern, but, again, that is for the SE staff to sort out.
  • I would like to chalk this up to (lack of) experience. If Shog9, Grace Note or Jon Ericson (the CMs I mostly dealt with when serving) had been consulted, I like to think they would have foreseen this. Maybe they were? Maybe they were unavailable? Maybe Sara Chipps came out, because she is covering the back of an underling?

Anyway, I agree with mbloch. Throwing people under the bus for this is premature, and does not really improve the matters at this point.

Yes, the communications from SE to us were poor. Reading it from the news first feels insulting. Then again. They don't have enough staff to handle this well to all directions, and they need to try and appease the investors first.


We can wait for more enlightened reactions from SE. I think we are entitled to one. But, let's try and be chill – to the extent possible. The real issues SE faces are about remaining solvent. We may need to adjust for that reason. Since I linked to my rant from a year ago, I also want you to study Shog9's response. I'm still grinding an axe or three to settle the score with the cucumbers. But, really, we need to find a solution/compromise there, and this debacle distracts us.

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    Well, first of all, SE's plight is a shit-storm of their own making. In their own words (paraphrasing), "we should give community members as much agency as possible." Their latest actions are the diametric opposite of that. And so, we wind up with staff members acting as surrogate nannies, instead of allowing community members to take responsibility for their own communities, where it belongs. If you need insight on short-staffing, look no further. The communities will run themselves, if you just let them. – Robert Harvey Oct 5 at 20:42
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    The "27" figure is from 2011; presumably some more staff have been hired since then. This About page (all the way at the bottom) sets the number of employees at 250+. – Zev Spitz Oct 5 at 21:43
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    Thanks for this well written answer, I agree that the lack of consultation amongst senior employees likely contributed to the problem. I am also surprised by the lack of visible engagement from the CEO or Chairman of SO. I am sure they are engaged behind the scenes and reading meta, but just to be sure I tweeted them a link to this page – mbloch Oct 6 at 2:32
  • Thanks for the correct data @ZevSpitz. Edited that in. While an embarrassing error of an order of magnitude, I don't think it actually changes my conclusions much. It is still a low number. – Jyrki Lahtonen Oct 6 at 4:40
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    The Linkedin company page for StackOverflow lists 393 employees, but since it depends on people self-updating their Linkedin profiles, I'm not sure how accurate it is. – Zev Spitz Oct 6 at 6:28
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Though the steps you've outlined above provide a sound way forward I think it's time to be brutally honest with ourselves.

SO/SE is not interested in what we really think or the suggestions we make regarding how this scenario should've been handled or should be handled going forward.

They've dug their heels in as is evident by the update and "apology" we received:

We recognize it has caused concern in the community as a whole. We made a hard decision, and we stand by that decision.

Between the time period of this update and Monica being fired, dozens of posts were made and hours of discussions had taken place in the chat rooms which had already outlined the steps that needed to have been taken.

Yet, they still went ahead and posted what they did.

With all the discussions that had taken place, SO/SE could've fired their whole public relations/community management team and still could've managed to come up with a better statement merely by assessing the discussions and the mood of the community (this is hyperbolic speech of course).

I don't think any more time or energy should be wasted trying to provide solutions for this predicament we're in. People have wasted (and I say wasted because it has fallen upon deaf ears) enough time and energy making posts. Enough material (suggestions, ideas etc) exists for SO/SE to sift through to please everyone and rebuild the community spirit they once had. We've shouted, and shouted, and shouted till we're blue in the face and now we're just tired. Tired of being tarred as "unwelcoming", tired of being ignored, and tired of the false promises.

As disappointing as it might be, we must now acknowledge that SO/SE has shifted their focus away from working with/pleasing "us".

I think we've fought enough, let it die a peaceful death 1.

1 I don't mean that we shouldn't critique things they post but I do mean that we should come to the full realization that we're not being listened to.

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    I believe that most people are inherently good and well-intentioned, and that people and organizations can recognize mistakes and change. I hope that you are pessimistic but time will tell – mbloch Oct 5 at 18:13
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    "Greater focus" implies that pleasing us is still part of it, however small. That would not appear to be the case – StoryTeller Oct 5 at 18:15
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    @mbloch hey, I'd more than happy if I'm proved wrong. It's just that everything we've seen up to now is evident to the contrary. – Script47 Oct 5 at 18:15
  • @StoryTeller yep, I see what you mean but I'm not sure how else to phrase it. Feel free to edit it if you've got something in mind. – Script47 Oct 5 at 18:26
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    @mbloch just reading your comment again this particular potion stood out to me: 'I hope that you are pessimistic but time will tell'. Time has already told us though, repeatedly. This isn't the first situation they've bungled within the past couple of years (it might just be the most public one, yes). Even restricting ourselves to the past year or two: the ads issue, licensing issue, HNQ debacle to the featured posts mess, we've not seen any improvement. – Script47 Oct 5 at 18:31
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    @Script47 I don't disagree but you know, with a new CEO comes new energy, new directions, etc. And the noise from the community has become much much louder, hard not hear it these days. So I remain hopeful enough to have invested some energy in a first basis of a plan. I also wanting to shift the focus away from "piling up on the criticism pile" to "what can be done to get out of this" – mbloch Oct 5 at 18:33
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    @mbloch but again, isn't the piling on taking place (if you want to describe it as that) because it has been so long since any of these issues have been addressed that people are throwing anything and everything whenever they think the company is listening hoping to see it stick? – Script47 Oct 5 at 18:56
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    @mbloch - It's hard to hear the shouting when it would appear that more and more announcements will be made on channels where there's no right-of-reply. And that's the way they seem to like it, given that asking or answering questions on Meta apparently makes the CMs sick and scared – Richard Oct 5 at 19:06
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    Maybe someone should tweet this. Then they'd listen. – marcellothearcane Oct 5 at 19:45
  • @marcellothearcane I've come to the conclusion that they prefer tweets because of the length restriction. Most of the time, you can't put much substance in them but you can very easily push an agenda. – Script47 Oct 5 at 19:47
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    I'd call BS on the CMs being scared - they have been overstretched for years and even now, have been working with us, non stop over weekends. They are the only reason I still have faith this can be resolved. – Journeyman Geek Oct 6 at 0:00
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    Strong agreement with @JourneymanGeek. If only the company would let the experienced CMs handle things like these. They are known names to the meta croad. Well respected all around, I think. – Jyrki Lahtonen Oct 6 at 11:23
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    @JourneymanGeek The "sick and scared" is rather solidly founded on Sara's MSO post when the hot meta posts feature was disabled there (nightmares and panic attacks). Richard just associated the wrong people with it, I think. It's not the CMs who are scared but design and marketing [and management], probably. – Daniel Fischer Oct 6 at 11:25
  • I'm sure Richard's reading comprehension is perfectly adequate for the task at hand. From his track record on SF&F he has an excellent ability to find relevant passages from a wide range of literature. This has me a little baffled then. – Journeyman Geek Oct 6 at 11:28
  • To be fair, @JourneymanGeek, Sara didn't say who has the nightmares, so one can jump to the wrong conclusion. (Of course I'm aware that it's probably +rolling, +rolling, +rolling.) – Daniel Fischer Oct 6 at 11:34
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DISCLAIMER: These are just some thoughts from a more-or-less outsider who does not fully understand what all this is about. This is not to say that I do not feel very sorry for those who have been disappointed. I do. I fully understand that users and moderators can be very frustrated, given what happened. Some may misinterpret this a ridiculing their concerns and frustrations. This is not at all the purpose. The purpose is to just to make some very basic statements.

  1. If you want to do "charity" work, work for a charity or nonprofit organization. You may not want to spend big chunks of your spare time hanging out on web sites that end with .com.
  2. If you post on these sites to get distracted because, say, you enjoy solving puzzles, then do it. Do, however, not expect real rewards for doing these things. It should be clear that the reputation score is just a meaningless number (sorry, high-reputation users! ;-) which can evaporate at any point because the company may decide to close down. You should not confuse this with, say, an academic title which you only lose under special circumstances.
  3. If you want to spend your time and energy into something where there are clear rules, you may need something like a contract.
  4. If you signed up on this site and agreed to their terms and conditions, you have agreed to these conditions. I am not a lawyer, so I cannot say what this really means, but to first approximation this seems to imply that both sides can do whatever they like as long as it is not against these terms. If there is no rule that prevents the company from firing moderators without, say, consulting a committee, then there is no such rule.
  5. If you think the company has violated some rules or even laws, then there should be some ways to hold them accountable. I am not at all an expert on this. But I do feel that just writing post after post on how unfortunate some of their actions were may, given the attitude they expressed, not necessarily lead anywhere. Of course I'd love to be proven wrong.
  6. If you feel that there should be a site in which such issues are handled in a more democratic and transparent way, it may take some group of people to build up such a site. Then different sites may "compete" for their users and moderators, and those who rule them may become more careful in their actions. At least I would be leaning more towards the more transparent site. Whether or not anyone is eager to run such a site in their spare time is a different question.

Overall I am actually rather surprised by how things are managed here at all levels. I hardly ever see anyone bringing up issues like conflict of interests and similar concerns. As long as there are no real checks and balances, unfortunate decisions will keep occurring and remain without major consequences. Probably those running the company could argue that committees and so will mainly slow them down and make them much less efficient, which could even be true to some extent. So in the end the main lesson might be that some, if not many, of us need to become a bit more realistic in their expectations of what they may get out of contributing here. It might be just a score that one day "evaporates".

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