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 overboil and lead to some extreme, irreversible escalations.
In Jan 2020, respected former Community Manager shog9 posted some tweets that seem to confirm that this mentality has entrenched even further to the point where, not only are the users considered the "toxic" enemy by senior management, but the company's own Community Managers are treated with similar contempt for "failing to control" the users:
...It has been ratcheting for over a year now: more and more "musts" and "must nots" - "say this AND ONLY THIS."
At this point, [the Community team] are operating under an unbelievable amount of pressure...
Your [the users'] anger will be held up as evidence of toxicity. Your frustration as evidence of noncooperation. Just as it has been for so many months past. My dear ex-colleagues will be blamed for failing to control you, and another rock will be laid on their backs.
It's not clear how much of this pressure originates from senior management or investors, or (perhaps most likely) a combination of the two.
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 things changed:
- Around 2016-17, a conscious decision was made to de-prioritise the main Q&A service, and to focus resources on revenue-generators like Careers. This led to work that would have reduced friction and problems being cancelled: for example, a major project to help question-answering users discover questions of interest to them was dropped: if successful, it would have greatly reduced the tension, frustration and user-attrition caused by users failing to find interesting or challenging questions that underlies a lot of the friction between new and old users.
- More recently, a number of initiatives were pushed through without consultation which 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 increasing frustration from users and increasingly unpopular decisions and decreasing listening from management, 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, Robert Cartaino* and Megan Risdal*, to name a few) have made some commendable efforts to re-engage after past disputes, complaints and problems, and ensure legitimate concerns expressed constructively are at least read, but it's rare (although some individuals have notably stepped up recently), and I've always got the impression that they do this in isolation, on their own initiative in overtime.
Take my answer here. If I hadn't gone to answer it, no one would have...
...no one is asking me to do this. It is my own initiative, but something that I have received support and recognition for internally. And if tomorrow I got fed up with it for whatever reason and stopped speaking publicly, it would be understood, and I would not be pressured to continue.
Yaakov Ellis on Chat
I always get the impression that this is done with support from peers, but little backing or interest from the higher-level decision-makers in SE who could actually solve the underlying problems. It certainly doesn't appear to be something SE/StackOverflow Inc as a company has a policy on or allocates time or resources for.
*no longer employees
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:
Also, former Lead Product Manager for Public Q&A, Megan Risdal posted a very interesting blog article after leaving Stack Overflow Inc towards the end of 2019. It's worth reading in full, these are some particularly-relevant snippets:
There are many types of people who use Stack Overflow. The main segments for Public Q&A are: Askers (including people who just look up answers to existing questions), Answerers, Curators, and Moderators...
Any initiatives that only serve one segment put the community and product into imbalance... I observed that this triggers an “us versus them” backlash which is not necessary and causes users to suffer.
...Stack Overflow is a website with a huge user base. Not taking advantage of the ability to run tests and get feedback from enthusiastic community members is a missed opportunity. Do it in complement with other research methods. At the same time, these feedback loops threaten to slow things down and can be emotionally draining. ...here are some quick tips:
- Don’t take things personally. You’ll get a lot of critique, positive and negative. As a product manager you have to emotionally separate yourself from the features you work on as much as possible...
- Delegate communication. It can be exhausting and extremely time consuming to interact deeply with a critical audience. Lean on people who are experts at this...
- Take a principled stance. Decision-making is easier when you already have clear objectives and guiding product principles...
Many staff and stakeholders don't experience the sites like core users do
Meanwhile, the cultural divide between senior figures making decisions and the moderators, regular users and community managers who understand the situation on the ground seems to be widening. It seems to be that the majority of senior SE decision-makers 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 many 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.