It's an "us vs. them" bunker mentality
We've seen it developing and festering for at least two years now, and in the last few months it appeared to reach a really critical point.
It started as natural growing pains as the company grew. In the early days, senior community members and staff members were so close, it was difficult to remember which diamond was which. Most site changes were discussed with the community, and while these discussions weren't always smooth or constructive, there was a baseline level of mutual respect. Jeff Atwood put it like this in an interview in 2012 (thanks Peter Mortensen for sharing this quote):
This is a community-based project, and all the content comes from the people participating in the site, so in a system like that, the better you can serve the people doing all the work in the system, the better the system is. You need people who are willing to help, to curate. You need those people to scale. Listening to those people helps you form your community. And even though 90% of the feedback you get is crap, the other 10% is gold. You just have to listen and you’ll get it.
Then, in the last couple of years, a number of initiatives were pushed through without consultation and were very poorly received. In some cases, such as the responsive design roll-out, this led to some really excessively negative backlash from some users, which was used to justify a precedent of ploughing ahead in the face of criticism, using the worst of the "crap" feedback to justify ignoring the "gold". This began a downward spiral of increasingly unpopular decisions and decreasing listening, which, this year (but before the recent blow-up) escalated into many staff not only ignoring Meta, but sometimes actively trying shield colleagues from having to think about users on Meta, to protect them from experiencing disagreement or criticism.
Engagement and communication seem to have decreased and mistrust increased in a vicious circle: with each increasingly unpopular action taken, it appears that staff have found it easier to double-down, close ranks and ignore disagreement, building a hostile "us and them" dynamic where growing frustration is met by growing defensive dismissiveness.
Some staff members (e.g. Yaakov Ellis, Catija, Jon Ericson, Shog9, Cesar M, and Megan Risdal, to name a few) have made some commendable efforts to re-engage after past disputes and ensure legitimate concerns expressed constructively are at least read, but it's increasingly rare, and I've always got the impression that they do this in isolation, on their own initiative in overtime, often seemingly without the backing or interest of the decision-makers in SE who can actually solve the underlying problems.
It doesn't appear to be something SE/StackOverflow Inc as a company allocates any time or resources for.
We now know enough about SE staff's thinking to know that most (not all) have disengaged
There was a similar big blow-up around this time last year, which, to their credit, some SE staff responded to (example).
Users and moderators' frustration erupted after a site was rashly excluded from hot network questions (HNQs) in an over-reaction to a couple of tweets, when users and moderators' concerns about the underlying HNQ issues had been ignored for years. The responses revealed that:
- Many SE staff routinely ignore Meta, because they see it as overwhelmingly negative, and therefore dismiss the concerns of meta users out of hand
- They know that systems for tracking users' concerns were failing. There was vague talk about trying to bring in some new system in 2019; but that hasn't happened
- Priorities are decided by project managers in a slow process that has little room for change in response to concerns from the community
- There are "customers" and revenue streams other than advertising, whose concerns will be acted on in a matter of hours
- There has been particularly high staff turn-over recently, with many new staff less familiar with the platform
The extent of the staff negativity towards Meta varies from individual to individual. It's worth mentioning that the Director of Q&A who appears to have been initially responsible for handling this situation has a startlingly negative view of Meta Stack Overflow, posted in July this year in the context of removing "Hot on Meta" from site sidebars):
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. This is outside of the CM team, who have been heroes and who I constantly see abused here.
I can’t, with good conscience, force anyone to participate in a venue that causes that type of psychological damage at work. The CMs feel this is something that can be remedied, and I believe them. However, until then, I can’t sleep at night knowing that we are forcing people to participate here as part of their jobs.
This view is not shared by all current or former staff, for example:
Staff don't experience the sites like core users do
Meanwhile, the cultural divide between staff and mods/regular users seems to be widening. It seems to be that the majority of SE staff are now "light" users of the SE network whose participation tends to be occasionally asking questions or participating from external links or search engine results. It's good that such users are represented – but regular users who follow tags or new questions on a site's home page seem to now be under-represented.
It seems like most staff move in circles where everyone has experienced snark or negativity, but where they seldom see or appreciate the hard work that goes into maintaining quality and keeping answerers engaged. Many comments from SE staff seem to come from a place where it's considered normal to view a site's valuable but sometimes grouchy power-users as "the enemy", and to view engaging with the network's core content-creating users as an ordeal.
Staff and users are drifting further apart
Thomas Owens, a moderator and user since the very start of Stack Overflow, wrote a very good account of how "growing pains" have accelerated into something else:
The engagement between staff and moderators was very high when I joined the moderation team, but decreased over time...
The past year or so, in my opinion, has seen the most disengagement between staff and moderators (and the broader community), …
We have what seems to be a toxic vicious circle:
- More and more regular users and moderators become jaded and frustrated, and more negative
- Staff disengage even further from core users, and occasionally lash out with excessive (ab)uses of their power
- Interactions become even more negative, and the rift deepens
This comment from August 2018, about negative responses to design changes, is highly relevant:
There is no doubt we've stopped making changes for core users and your observations about how that's gotten worse ring true to me. And we've certainly seen negative feedback on meta (downvotes being the most trivial). The result may not be what you hope for, however. Often (and more often recently) I've heard colleagues dismiss meta feedback. Nobody wants to listen to relentless negativity. Hence this meta post written in the dead of night so I can finally sleep. As an intermediary between the community and the company, I'd like to help meta feedback be less easily ignorable.
– Jon Ericson♦ Aug 19 '18 at 15:47
This was in the context of the roll-out of some design changes, which resulted in some incredibly, excessively negative reaction from some Meta users, as well as many constructive suggestions and criticisms, many of which were lost in the noise.
The part about making feedback "less easily ignorable" was about asking Meta users to tone it down so that staff wouldn't choose to ignore them (which, at the time, was sadly necessary - some Meta users really disgraced themselves and this sorry episode undoubtedly did lasting damage).
It wasn't about about ensuring staff don't choose to ignore the many users who do post constructively.
That new design roll-out wasn't nearly as bad as some users claimed, but was poorly communicated, with little consultation, leaving many bugs, issues and regressions. As far as I know, the problems that were raised constructively were only addressed much later, because Catija (a moderator-turned-staff-member) chose to make it her personal mission to sort out the mess and rebuild bridges with the users.
There's currently nothing ensuring staff listen to users
If an SE staff member outrages a hundred moderators, five hundred 10K users, and two thousand average users, if they work in one of the departments that now routinely ignore meta, there will be no consequences they will feel. It's just "Ugh, users on Meta are moaning again". They can choose to simply ignore it, and their peers and colleagues will also ignore it. It doesn't touch their circle – thanks to the fact that hostility towards users has been normalised by years of increasingly rare, increasingly negative interactions.
If that same staffer annoys one colleague, or a Twitter user who is followed by a senior colleague, however, things get socially and professionally awkward. It does touch them and their circle.
It's socially and professionally easier to ignore the users, close ranks, and double-down on something like Monica's firing. An SE staffer will never awkwardly bump into Monica in the staff canteen. They don't need to think of her as a "real person" - it's easy for them to ignore and dehumanize her. If, however, they said "Actually, I think the sacking was wrong and we should review it", this may create mild awkwardness with the colleague they implicitly criticised. Much less severe, but something they can't simply choose to ignore.
This long-festering schism seems to have reached a point where it is professionally and socially easier for staff to view users as merely irritating faceless usernames, and not "real people" who create the content the sites depend on.
This is a common, fixable problem, not unique to SE
This is obviously toxic and unsustainable – but also very common if an organisation does not take concrete steps to prevent such an "us and them" mentality from developing.
I've seen this rot in many organisations – companies where staff have open contempt for their customers; charities whose staff come to view the people the charity exists to help as unappreciative whingers because that's easier that saying "Actually, I'm sorry but your project was misguided. We should have asked what they really needed first."
There are long-term ways to reverse the rot – for example, SE could have two moderators a month act as "community reps", remotely joining meetings and reviewing documents; or a program where staff are paired with moderators for one month a year, sharing duties, to understand sites more deeply. (They should also ensure that non-US voices are represented, and particularly, non-native English speakers.)
But the organisation has to want to improve. We seem to have passed a tipping point where the individual members of staff who have the power to change this simply don't cross paths in their working day or social life with anyone who thinks it's worth engaging with the users who create the content the network is built on.