132

Upon multiple occasions SE staff members have expressed open hostility towards the community as a whole, as well as towards specific members of the community. Specific references are avoided here because other posts on the subject that included them have been locked or deleted, and the purpose of this question isn't to discuss specific events. It is to seek a general understanding of the situation.

To provide background, the intentionally hostile behavior includes staff members speaking out on social media platforms against the community by making jokes about the current situation and taking pride in the community expressing its disappointment. Staff members have suppressed respectful discussion on the relevant topics, and have told members to seek therapy. Entire comment threads on meta have been deleted pointing members to seek discussion in chat, while chat is heavily censored with a clear bias against criticism of SE's ongoing behavior towards the community.


I would like to attempt explaining this behavior. If an organization is transparent and honest it means that their word can be taken at face-value. This is not the case here. Trying to understand what is happening by interpreting the statements and actions of SE in a framework of reason, logic, and ethics has only caused more confusion.

I see two other perspectives that could be useful in understanding the situation:

One - Money

It has been suggested that this all stems from financial motives, but I don't understand how recent events will result in more revenue for SE. For the growing enterprise business, large companies generally prefer their third party software to be apolitical. They want software that serves their specific business needs. The lack of professionalism and loss of trust coming out of this doesn't look good to corporations interested in long term business relationships.

If the cost to maintain the public network sites is too high relative to the advertising revenue, there are much cleaner ways to unload it. Destroying the community that helped build it is a far more expensive approach.

Can anyone offer other reasons why intentional hostility towards the community would result in financial gain?

Two - The game of politics

The hostile behavior makes much more sense if SE staff are using SE and their power over the community as a tool for radical progressive activism.

Compelled speech is not widely supported globally or nationally, even among those that identify as liberal or progressive. It is largely unaccepted as a positive outside the sphere of radical progressivism. It is either ignorant or deceitful to claim that a code of conduct incorporating compelled speech will benefit the users that are being excluded from participating in SE.

These users are being used by staff members as tools for advancing their own recognition within their political group, specifically evidenced by their behavior on social media. The result of their actions has resulted in these users now being targeted for harassment more than ever before. It's hard to believe this outcome was unexpected. The issue of compelled speech and pronouns has come up in mainstream media before and is widely known to be an extremely contentious issue. I believe this is the largest and most influential platform to introduce compelled speech into something like a code of conduct, it was going to draw attention.

Although using this perspective to understand the hostile behavior of SE staff makes the most sense to me, I sincerely hope that there is a more innocent explanation that is logically consistent. Am I missing something? The use of marginalized groups for one's own political gain is nothing less than abuse.

  • 1
    Maybe they are just frustrated a bit. Given what people say about them I would find that kind of understandable. – Trilarion Oct 14 at 6:43
  • 24
  • 2
    My previous comments were deleted, since then I had time to reflect but I still think your post is inaccurate, lacks sources, is incredibly one-sided and its aim is to instigate hatred. – Mari-Lou A Oct 15 at 15:25
  • 2
    I have to agree with @mari-loua on that - the latter part of this question and your comments below indicate this is political hatchet-grinding not a good faith question. All the “political abuse” stuff should be edited out to leave a perfectly answerable question (it already has a great one...) – mxyzplk says reinstate Monica Oct 24 at 14:19
  • 1
    @Trilarion Are you seriously defending SE staff? Really? They're entirely, 100% in the wrong here. Stop. They deserve all the hate and vitriol they've been receiving. You reap what you sow, and SE staff have been sowing intolerance and hatred for a while now. Of course that's what they're going to get back in return. – ell Oct 25 at 16:03
186

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. Then, after a number of initiatives were poorly received, some really excessively negative backlash from users was used to justify a precedent of ploughing ahead in the face of criticism, which then (before the recent blow-up) developed into many staff not only ignoring Meta, but sometimes acting to shield colleagues from having to see or consider criticism or disagreement on Meta.

Engagement and communication seem to have decreased and mistrust increased in a vicious circle: many more unpopular actions have been taken and it appears that each time, staff have found it easier to simply double-down, close ranks and ignore the users, creating a hostile "us and them" dynamic where growing frustration is met by growing defensive dismissiveness.

Some staff members (e.g. Catija, Tim Post, Jon Ericson, Shog9 and Cesar M, 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:

  • On that answer

    When I was an employee I've never had any problem, my posts were mostly well-received, even on controversial questions. At the same time CM posts were tanked routinely, and I even know exactly why (and it's the same reason now).

  • On this answer:

    [1] ...I've been working with them [new staff] to listen more to user feedback including what comes up on meta. I'm not giving up on having a working relationship between staff and the community even though it's been rocky lately.

    [2] ...In some parts of the company, meta feedback is still valued

  • And an answer from July discussing similar issues:

    ...we need to be honest and reset some expectations of what will happen with the feedback that folks provide. We value it, and we absolutely promise to listen to all of it (we read every word here and much of what y'all have to write elicits internal discussion), but we can't always take the actions that folks here might prefer. We also can't commit to communicating everything in advance, especially when we know that we're simply not open to feedback about certain things [because "decisions have been made after research, data, and users have been consulted" and they "can't always share those for privacy purposes"], because that would be wasting people's time

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.

  • 49
    This is a really interesting answer. It reminds me of something I read about police officers (not sure if it’s been borne out by data) – how constantly being exposed to only the worst aspects of society can often result in them developing feelings of bias and contempt for the communities that they’re supposed to be helping – divibisan Oct 13 at 15:21
  • 8
    @user568458 I can see how the "us vs. them" mentality emerges from the structure of meta itself, but it's the introduction of political ideology into that dynamic which really catalyzes it. – anonymous user Oct 13 at 15:32
  • 1
    Apparently many staff only know SO, and don't even know SE exists! – curiousdannii Oct 14 at 0:56
  • 8
    It's likely that SE is now focused on the corporate version of their product and decided to ignore concerns from non-paying users. Corporate users are unlikely to care about trolls or spam on their platform, so why invest any effort into developing tools against those problems. – JonathanReez Supports Monica Oct 14 at 1:17
  • 17
    For the record, my comment was less a criticism of meta and more a hope that we could have productive dialog. At the time people were reacting to design choices in ways that had the effect of alienating the people who had the power to change the decisions. There has been considerable turnover in employees in the last year—especially those who are building new features and fixing bugs. I've been working with them to listen more to user feedback including what comes up on meta. I'm not giving up on having a working relationship between staff and the community even though it's been rocky lately. – Jon Ericson Oct 14 at 7:58
  • 5
    Tbh. I feel that the technical/ feature side of things is underappreciated.Stuff is moving again. A lot of the unhappiness is over longer term distancing from the community, and well a mix of patience running out and what really feels like many counter productive moves. There's a lot of fear, uncertainty and anger from good folks. I honestly fear things could reach an irrecoverable point. SO could survive but the heart of the network could get ripped out – Journeyman Geek Oct 14 at 8:10
  • 4
    @JonEricson Thanks for replying, and thanks for continuing to try to build bridges. To be honest, what you say is still a criticism of Meta, albeit a justifiable one - much of the backlash to the design changes was OOT and I imagine it's one of the things that started the bunker mentality (although I'd also argue that professionals should be able to respond to criticism professionally without disengaging or closing ranks). My wording is probably a bit too harsh, I'll think how to improve it. While you're here, your response to this question would be very valuable? – user56reinstatemonica8 Oct 14 at 8:23
  • 4
    @user568458 I was here for that and we reacted horribly. Any change in the UI was met with full on attacks by the meta userbase. I blame SE for a lot of things, but the design team not wanting to participate in Meta given that every time they posted, they were met with pure toxicity (the few civil and rational critical posts were drowned in a sea of over-dramatic, melodramatic whining), is perfectly reasonable as was Jon's criticism. Sure professionals need to respond to criticism professionally, but only when that criticism is presented in a constructive manner. We failed at that. Miserably. – terdon - stop harming Monica Oct 14 at 9:29
  • 2
    @JonEricson in all honesty I've heard colleagues dismiss meta very much when I was working there, to the point (for example) that a project I managed was canned for pretty much that reason, and this is years ago. I'm surprised and saddened that the situation worsened in the past couple of years. Let me know if I can help you. – Sklivvz Oct 14 at 14:21
  • 4
    @Sklivvz: Yes, I remember those conversations, though I was only tangentially involved. I'm not sure the situation has worsened across the board. In some parts of the company, meta feedback is still valued. – Jon Ericson Oct 14 at 18:36
  • 1
    @JonEricson yep, I think we all know who you are :-) – Sklivvz Oct 14 at 19:23
  • 8
    This is an incredible post. I've tried to tell this exact tale in the past, but you do it much better. – Lightness Races with Monica Oct 15 at 14:13
  • I think the design changes were a major escalation in that it drew in all the non-SO sites, but the rift with meta predates even that. See also the MSO reaction to Documentation, the then-new Developer Story replacing CVs, and more. Many of the new features/dev work from the last several years have attracted negative feedback, and it's only gotten louder since then as more users get drawn in. – Troyen Oct 15 at 22:33
  • 1
    Yeah, what does it mean that the “Director of Q&A” has basically zero participation on the network itself? So disassociated from the actual community... – mxyzplk says reinstate Monica Oct 24 at 14:14
51

I have a theory: shame and panic.

They know there are systemic problems, they may or may not be aware that they don’t know how to fix those problems, they are on some level ashamed about both of those, and when something serious happens, they panic and act out in ways that are unfair, unclear, and hostile.

Proudly blogging about machine learning being part of a cultural fix is one example of evidence that they know there is a cultural problem and they don’t know how to fix it.

There also seems to be an assumption and message that the community has to take the lead on fixing the culture, while studies on group cultures show that culture comes from the top down, not the bottom up.

Panic is evidenced by overly rushed reactions that later on seem obviously poor choices. They are acting in excessive haste and don’t even seem to be aware of their mistakes until they are called out by the community.

  • I can see how that might be the case. I may have been excluding that as a possibility because I wouldn't expect panic decisions being made by people doing this as their job – anonymous user Oct 13 at 10:12
  • 17
    @anonymoususer I think the problem is that their jobs and expertise are mainly in coding and social media platform creation and management, not in group culture, sensitivity, or inclusiveness. They don’t have the tools to deal with the problems that have sprung up, because they are not computer problems, they are human problems. Hence the idea that machine learning can change the culture. It would be funny if it weren’t tragic. – Todd Wilcox Oct 13 at 10:16
  • 21
    +1 Never attribute to malice what can be explained by incompetence. – Andrew Shepherd Oct 13 at 11:02
  • 2
    @ToddWilcox I have zero expertise in group culture, sensitivity, or inclusiveness and I am not smarter than your average neighbour, but I find the reactions we are seeing from the community very previsible. It is really hard to me to believe it caught them by surprise. – Stop harming Monica Oct 13 at 13:43
  • 2
    And they can only do this because most of the community is already very much left-wing on the political spectrum. Just not that extreme. – Michael Oct 13 at 15:02
  • 11
    Also, where are all the people who demand us to use neo-pronouns? I haven't seen them yet. For me, they only exist in the minds of SE employees. – Michael Oct 13 at 15:05
  • 1
    @Michael I would say that if you have a social circle at all you should know how this work, unless it is actually a sect. I don't care where SE is on any spectrum but those of honesty and professionalism. They have been seriously failing in at least one of them or maybe both, I don't know (but I'd like to). – Stop harming Monica Oct 13 at 15:18
  • 4
    @Michael This exists see Aza's resignation note meta.stackexchange.com/questions/334750/… maybe noit exactly pronouns but anti gender issues. – user151019 Oct 13 at 16:15
  • @Goyo, FYI previsible in English is predictable. It's one of the few -ible words from Romance languages which doesn't have a direct cognate in English. – Peter Taylor Oct 14 at 8:35
  • @PeterTaylor What word would you use? – Stop harming Monica Oct 14 at 13:38
  • @Goyo, predictable. – Peter Taylor Oct 14 at 13:44
  • 1
    @PeterTaylor Ah, I found also previsible and was unsure about the difference. I know they are different in metheorology but that is very specific. Thank you. – Stop harming Monica Oct 14 at 20:43
31

The following smells a bit like a conspiracy theory, but it's one possibility.

Note that the company (SE/SO) possesses an excellent knowledge base, which answers very important questions in programming, computer administration, chemistry and what not. So one possible plan for future is to sit on that, get the traffic from internet searches, and receive money from advertising. If you wanted to follow this plan, what would you do?

  1. Cut expenses; slow down development
  2. Reinforce legal aspects
  3. Increase delivery of advertisements
  4. Make the people who disagree with (1)...(3) leave

Here, (4) is possible/desirable because you don't need the community so much anymore - your content is good enough, and will benefit you during the following 10 years at least.

Also, in the context of (3): users with reputation above a certain threshold see much less advertisements. If all these people get their reputation reset to 0 (leave), they will still browse the knowledge base, out of necessity, but will see more advertisements, which will generate more money for the company.

  • 21
    A problem with "we already have good content" theories is that the computer stuff, especially SO, ages very quickly and badly. Question/answer pairs from just 2 or 3 years ago can sometimes either be outright wrong, or irrelevant as new tech means the question doesn't really arise. The majority of content lasts longer, but the minority that doesn't is large enough to be important. – Stuart Whitehouse Oct 13 at 11:06
  • 12
    There is a lot of outrage on meta, but let's be honest, what percentage of regular users are even aware of this? SO's Facebook, Twitter, Sara's and David's accounts, they're all awfully quiet about this (expectedly). Unless someone frequents meta, they have no idea. Even if all of us left, it's likely SE wouldn't really notice. This is part of the problem. – user622505 Oct 13 at 11:27
  • I like your conclusion of they just wanting that people actually leave, but I think that people against 1-3 are a fraction so small of regular google searches that there should be no reason to do anything at all other than just doing nothing (which was what they were mostly actually doing anyway). There must be a stronger, although I still have no idea of what it could be. OTOH, I don't think that we could expect that they do anything rational anymore. – Victor Stafusa Oct 13 at 11:30
  • I always thought: for any new internet company, participants first, revenues next, profits will come naturally and lastly. I believe they are within the second phase, i.e. they are starting to get revenues. Why they want to get rid of users so fast? Share holders are pushing? Or something is happening. It makes not much sense to me. – scaaahu Oct 13 at 12:07
  • 2
    Get rid of only the problematic users. If there is less criticism, life is easier for the company. Possibly there is a similar contradiction inside the company (sorry for making this even more speculative) - if you dampen criticism by community, it will be easier to suppress criticism inside. – anatolyg Oct 13 at 12:49
  • 2
    I have suspected this for some time, and is one reason why I will not leave willingly. – Martin James Oct 13 at 12:56
  • @anatolyg I am not sure I can follow. Monica is a problematic user? The impression I got from reading the posts is that Monica may not be very good, but bad enough to be gotten rid of? – scaaahu Oct 13 at 12:58
  • 2
    We are talking about community here, not about one specific user. Also, we are talking about general attitude, not the specifics of any single dispute. The general attitude is shifting from "we want the community to thrive" to "losing 30% of community is acceptable". Of course, this is a slow process, and there will be glitches along the way. – anatolyg Oct 13 at 13:10
  • @MartinJames Currently the best action is not giving up. Leaving is what they want us to do. Unfortunately, too many users are deleting their accounts. – Her Majesty Queen of ARC Oct 13 at 15:08
  • 3
    Sorry but this is way too close to a conspiracy theory. Why would they want users who disagree to leave, when they already simply ignore users who disagree? And if they wanted fewer users with rep above the advertising threshold, they'd just remove that threshold and show everyone ads. What would stop them? Some users would leave in protest... but you think that's what they want, so, win-win? – user56reinstatemonica8 Oct 13 at 16:26
  • 2
    @user568458 no, you don't understand. The trick is to get the annoying users, e.g. those who object to 'teach me basic language syntax, boolean algebra, how to print out values etc', to leave without giving any kind of impression that SE persuaded them. – Martin James Oct 13 at 18:16
  • 3
    @user622505 You are absolutely correct. This "community" is a tiny drop in the bucket compared to the millions of drive-by posters who couldn't care less about any community. They only show up to get a question answered, then leave and never come back until they face another programming issue. – pacoverflow Oct 13 at 20:30
  • 9
    @pacoverflow, this community may be a tiny drop in the bucket, but it's an absolutely critical one. Over on SO Meta, someone ran the numbers, and the "0.015% who visit Meta" contribute approximately 12% of the answers and 20% of the site curation. If you want to see what a site looks like with only drive-by posters, check out Hardware Recommendations. – Mark Oct 14 at 1:58
  • @Mark Not sure even the people who contribute 12% of answers care. I see that Jon Skeet has still been posting answers. – pacoverflow Oct 15 at 6:33
  • @pacoverflow That's to be expected. Jon Skeet exists in an alternate dimension where all code works, where Monica was hired to manage community relations, and where the CoC was never changed because discrimination never existed. Things work so well over there, he built a machine to allow him to share knowledge from his perfect dimension to ours. – user56reinstatemonica8 Oct 25 at 9:40
26

It is a situation that swiftly went out of control.

Meta has gone from a sleepy backwater, sometimes accused of being cliquish into a powderkeg. Initiatives meant to protect vulnerable folks has turned into a magnet for trolls.

We usually put out fires ourselves with help. Folks are running around trying to put out every new fire there is and it's failing.

The core of the community is fractured and at odds with this self. If the goal was to upset the status quo - let us ask, what we are building instead.

I cannot speak for the folks who stroke the fires, within the company, from within the community or the folks attracted from the periphery by the fires burning in our little space. It might not be the shining city on the hill SO is but it's the heart of the community.

While someone did set the fires, I doubt anyone expected the depth and breadth of reaction. Times like these bring out the best and worst in and of people.

The only reason that I believe that we have any chance of fixing this, ever is I believe that folks have faith in what SE is and in the community.

If you truly believe someone is trying to kill the community - by sowing hostility and chaos, do we beat them by feeding in that or by rebuilding?

We cost them money if they don't have an excuse to close us down. The media loves a good dumpster fire and corporate messups make a greater story anyway.

Let's not call for anyone to be fired. Let's deal with the worst of the rabble we have attracted politely and firmly. Let's also identify and encourage the voices on the company that are on our side, not get out the pitchforks for those who don't care as much for us.

We win by surprise and love. Not letting us getting manipulated by hate.

  • 15
    "Meta has gone from a sleepy backwater, sometimes accused of being cliquish into a powderkeg. Initiatives meant to protect vulnerable folks has turned into a magnet for trolls." the trouble here is that I don't think that happened magically by itself without SE having anything to do with it. And this is a big part of the problem. SE says it wants to foster a good community, but I think they dropped the ball with the current one. The lack of interaction and guidance did at least contribute to the current "powderkeg" and then coming down harsh on the community caused a spark. – VLAZ Oct 13 at 12:44
  • 11
    It's not swiftly out of control. This situation has slowly, steadily and consciously been manufactured by SO since 6+ months back. The Monica debacle was just the final straw. – Amarth Oct 13 at 15:03
  • 7
    Sure the tension built up... But it got a lot worse all at once. Its over a lot more than 6 months too – Journeyman Geek Oct 13 at 15:14
18

Speaking for myself, I'm no more hostile toward the community than I ever have been. Like any culture, it is flawed, of course. I consider it part of my job to help correct flaws so that the community will be more resilient and effective. This is a task that induces humility as demonstrated by not just one, but two recent apologies from staff. To even think we can change culture requires a degree of hubris that would make even Larry Wall blush. I'm still trying because I believe in you, not because it's easy.

A little over a year ago, I wrote:

It's pretty clear that I and other employees of Stack Overflow see ourselves primarily as rescuers. Judging from your analogy, I'd guess that's where you put yourself too. It's generally the role that's seen as the most noble and desirable to be in. But it's important to be aware that playing any role in the drama means you are adding to the drama.

That's still where we are at and that explains, in my way of thinking, why there's so much drama.

The specific drama we are observing right now stems from this chart in our annual survey:

Non-men are less likely to consider themselves part of the Stack Overflow community

We've been running regular site satisfaction surveys that turn up similar results: men are more likely to feel comfortable with Stack Overflow than other people. This isn't some misunderstanding of our data or a few agitators on Twitter or whatnot. Stack Overflow culture isn't serving other gender identities as well as it could be. You'll just have to trust me that this reality plays a significant role in motivating staff including myself. (Again, we haven't gone about acting on this motivating factor as effectively as one would hope.)

One wrinkle: Stack Exchange sites probably do a better job of welcoming women than Stack Overflow, but we don't have more than anecdotal data to back that up.

In my estimation, the path forward includes designers, developers, product managers and community managers continuing to improve the systems that govern the activity on the sites. For the first time in many years, I feel that is happening as we speak. I'm personally delighted with the experimentation we are doing with close and reopen votes, vote display and the ask a question page. Some of these experiments will fail to produce better results, but others will make the sites just a little less frustrating for everyone.

Technical solutions won't solve every problem, however. I know it doesn't look like it right now, but I'm confident we'll learn as a company to work with the community rather than against it. There's been quite a bit of turnover on the staff with many employees having little to no contact with users of the sites. That's contributed in producing some of the decisions we've needed to apologize for. I think we will need to forge a fresh start that involves the community and the company getting reacquainted with each other. Even those of us who have been around for a long time could use a renewed attitude. (I wrote this post just before my sabbatical, for instance. I wouldn't have written it after.)

As Sam's old gaffer was wont to say:

It's the job that's never started as takes longest to finish.

  • 21
    I know it doesn't look like it right now, but I'm confident we'll learn as a company to work with the community rather than against it. You (pl.) keep saying that, but the pattern has been the same for over a year. You drop some announcement or action without any discussion, then don't listen to any discussion, and then act shocked when people get upset. One of your moderators put it best here: twitter.com/gortok/status/1183727708376838145 Commitments are great, but greatly dimished when then once again nothing happens. I get this isn't you, and nobody here is mad at the CMs, but – mag Oct 14 at 16:04
  • 13
    at some point apologies from the company lose their effect and percieved sincerity. What happened after the latest apology? Meta has been full of indignation since, and nothing besides heavy handed removal of content has happened since (granted, that was probably necessary.) But where is the company actually talking to us, instead of at us? – mag Oct 14 at 16:04
  • 6
    @Magisch: I agree. Apologies are hollow without (as we call it in Christianity) repentance. Identifying where we've gone wrong can only be the first step on the path toward fixing a relationship, but it is a step. I don't believe we have fully come to grips with our mistakes, but at least we are starting to see that we made them. – Jon Ericson Oct 14 at 16:10
  • 7
    [cont'd]: 1. Drawing conclusions from surveys. There may be leading questions, and I certainly could phrase the survey in a way where the outcome would be the opposite (see meta.stackoverflow.com/q/382683 and many more). And 2.: Drawing conclusions from bar charts where tons of data have been aggregated, possibly (!) even intentionally with the goal of supporting a certain agenda... – Marco13 Oct 14 at 16:13
  • 6
    Many people of us really want to believe you're going to follow through, we want to help out and work with you, but we've gotten nothing but reassurances, no action, no followthrough, and slights over slights. When is it going to start working out? We're looking for a way, any way, to believe you without lying to ourselves, but we're not finding it... – mag Oct 14 at 16:13
  • 7
    I'm with you @Magisch when to comes to wanting to see signs this is going to work out. It's been pretty bleak lately. I think people, especially people who are new to social software think that grand gestures are the way to change things. I think it more productive to make smaller, targeted changes where we can to encourage activity we want and discourage activity we don't. – Jon Ericson Oct 14 at 16:39
  • 3
    Thanks for providing some of the thought-process behind the current efforts. It's actually the first time I have seen something that explains it from the company (aside from "we've had complaints"). Slightly leery of changes because I still feel flagging is the tool for the job in most cases of hostility, but the "Ask Q" is a big upgrade and the vote handlings look interesting, certainly wouldn't knock it until it's tried. – Geronimo Oct 14 at 16:42
  • 8
    That's the kind of data that the "unwelcoming" blog post from 2018(!) should have been based on. And not the merely anecdotal evidence that it sadly was. It's all too easy for you, the company, to blame that discrepancy on the community, rather than taking responsibility and admit to your lack of sponsorship for any kind of outreach program — whether that's "Women Who Code" or otherwise. You want to change the demographic, reach out. Don't blindly scapegoat the people within. – anon Oct 14 at 18:55
  • 4
    @anon: Agreed. I wouldn't say that we acted only on anecdotal evidence, but we have developed better sources of data since 2018. I certainly agree we screwed up communicating along the way. – Jon Ericson Oct 14 at 19:03
  • 28
    I think the problem has never been whether being more inclusive was the right thing to do. The problem has always been that the changes by SE have been exclusive and unwelcoming, instead. This is not only because SE staff aggroed mods, but because SE staff worked arrogantly without listening -- which, by the way, is still 100% the case. There's a way better FAQ, drop yours and pick up the other one. That would be a tiny, insufficient, but credible gesture which is worth more than then nth "oops" post. Another obvious thing: reinstate Monica and stop the bullshitting about her. Come on. – Sklivvz Oct 15 at 0:37
  • 3
    @JonEricson: There is a fundamental difference between removing those things from the platform that cause people to feel unwelcome, and advocating/promoting for specific groups of people. – Robert Harvey Oct 15 at 14:46
  • 8
    And frankly, I'm a bit distrustful of surveys. One has to be very careful about making conclusions unless you can validate them in some way, perhaps by asking people directly why they voted the way they did. I've seen too many blog posts from your data analysis folks, who have the right data but seem to come to the wrong conclusions about it, to fully trust what the surveys say. I've filled out the surveys several times, but if all this drama is the end result, I'm inclined to not participate in them anymore. – Robert Harvey Oct 15 at 14:50
  • 3
    BTW, it is hard to achieve inclusivity if newbies keep posting more and more questions like "I hav javascript plobrem can u plz gimme the code?" as if this was some facebook, whatsapp or slack community and in the other side, all the mechanics and UI of SE incentives veterans to just click the close and downvote buttons and then move on and never look back. This could also correlate with how many people seeks facebook, twitter or whatsapp for help on programming problems, since the SE format is very different than that and even that this could have some correlation with gender. – Victor Stafusa Oct 15 at 15:42
  • 3
    @JonEricson Seems like y'all lost your biggest and most trusted advocate that was still left just two hours ago. Doesn't seem to be looking up so much? – mag Oct 15 at 16:20
  • 15
    I don't know much about how it works in Christianity (though I got some helpful answers to my question on your site), but in Judaism, repentance is a multi-part process that includes acknowledging the wrong, making amends, seeking forgiveness, and making changes to avoid repeating the error. That part about making amends is really important. Insincere (in the one case) and not-clearly-sincere (in the other) apologies aren't enough. – Monica Cellio Oct 15 at 16:53
12

My observation is that the meta community is just really abrasive, and at times even toxic and abusive. I think the SE employees are just fed up from dealing with it, and have slowly started ignoring it (as have I, by the way).

I wrote about this a while ago in Tired of Stack Overflow:

In general I find Meta an unfriendly place. It’s no surprise that Stack Overflow (the company) pretty much ignores Meta; the community can be borderline abusive. I still remember how Meta reacted to the Documentation effort of a few years ago. In particular I felt bad for Jon Ericson because he tried very hard to be constructive and to make it work. I too was critical of a lot of aspects of Documentation, but far too much wasn’t constructive, was just repeating the same stuff ad nauseam, or was phrased very hostile.

I also feel the community is self-selective towards this kind of behaviour as it's gone unchecked for such a long time; from The other kind of censorship:

Constructive dialogue can only happen if everyone feels respected, and can participate without the fear of being mistreated (belittling, aggressive replies, insults, etc.) If there is such a fear, then I will guarantee you that some people simply won’t post at all. Simply put, people don’t enjoy being treated like s—t. Who knew?


It's important to point out that I don't believe anyone is looking to be like this, it's just that it can be hard to realise how your words affect people, especially over text, and in absence of feedback, never mind he issue of cultural differences, non-native speakers, etc.

Mea culpa: I too have contributed to this in the past (on SE and elsewhere). What really changed for me was working remotely, where you interact with the same people extensively and get (constructive and private) feedback. Some people have even told me they thought I was a real jerk until they met me in person and realised I was actually a pretty nice and fun guy! The power of chatting to your coworkers over a few beers in Irish pubs 'ey?

This feedback is mostly absent on Meta. There are no meetups, there are no nights out, there aren't even private messages to give feedback without it being public (private feedback almost always works better).

Another reason it's hard to change meta is because criticism of the meta community (like this one) is being judged by the exact same community (via votes). In Dutch we have a saying: "a butcher grading own meat"; meaning, that you can't trust the butcher to give accurate quality gradings for their own meat. It was only after I stopped contributing to meta that I fully realised just for abrasive it is at times.


So my suggestion to the community is to reflect on their own behaviour instead of blaming SE employees. That doesn't mean I always agree with SE employees, or think they've always handled things well (IMHO they didn't), but if you really want to heal this rift then the meta community needs to change.

I know this is hard, but I did it, and I'm still friends with some people who called me "jerks" before (even though I quit that job back in February). You just need to be willing to listen.

  • It's strange, but I've been guilty of most of the negative and condescending behaviors you outlined in your "Tired of" post. I simply used your post as a valuable guide to improving my behavior. Did you ever post that here? – James Reinstate Monica Polk Oct 13 at 13:02
  • 2
    Good content but it'd be greatly improved by correcting "the meta community is just really abrasive" with something like "a large and very prominent minority of...". Part of the problem, I think, is that the abrasive over-reactions on Meta get used as an excuse to ignore the huge amount of constructive content. – user56reinstatemonica8 Oct 13 at 21:05
  • 4
    You're correct that it's not everyone @user568458, but on the other hand, the abrasive content does tend to get upvoted (and not downvoted to hell, or even flagged). Because it's not directed at them I think many people on meta simply don't see how it's perceived by the other end (SE staff). There is no malicious intent by anyone here, but there is a problem. As for ignoring, it's easy to ignore feedback if the feedback elicits an emotional response due to the way it's written. – Martin Tournoij Oct 13 at 23:19
  • 2
    I fully agree with this answer that quite a high fraction of what has been written has not been very nice. But I think that even if it was all only written in perfectly polite manners the divide and separation of goals would still exist. I think the primary reason for the bad behavior on all sides (the company messages aren't well written either sometimes) is simply a conflict of interests. Somehow it gets out the worst in us. – Trilarion Oct 14 at 6:39
  • 1
    There is a strong connection between the quote about censorship, and how a certain group of people reacts when someone objects an aspect of the CoC. People claim that the CoC aims at reducing the mistreatment of trans people, and this claim is used as a justification for openly and aggressively mistreating the people who dare to ask questions about the practical implementation of the CoC. Coming to equal terms does not seem to be the goal any more. – Marco13 Oct 14 at 12:36
  • What does that saying look like in Dutch? Please consider adding it to the answer :D – Marc.2377 Oct 26 at 11:10
7

TLDR; A possible conspiracy theory in an effort to make sense of it...

Press (positive or negative) can be seen to increase exposure and draws others into the conversation and that is good for business. Especially when it is being hosted by other platforms like Twitter or The Register.

For example, recent Meta.SE traffic as seen on Glorfindel's answer:

meta_traffic

Consider comment count to be a quasi-accurate index of "engagement" by users (there are some flaws with this I know, but it still has merits) versus random people just doing a google search finding their answer and leaving right away.

Last month StackOverflow had twice as much "user engagement" than all other SE sites combined.

Seeing that the majority of the world are not programmers but still have questions, it would follow that if SO Inc. could capture more engaged users to other stacks it would exponentially increase their traffic volume without much change in their business model.

I think some of their efforts in the last couple of years has been in this direction.


Take this current pronoun situation, the tiny percentage of hostility that can be found in the tiny percentage of comments that contain a non-neutral pronoun can very easily be handled by flags the same way we have been doing for over a decade.

I really doubt it has much to do with consideration to the LGBTQ+ community. Holding them up on a pedestal for special treatment is certainly not something I have seen many advocate.

BUT it is good for exposure in the press as can be found in links elsewhere.


This does not say it is good in the long run. I personally feel somewhat burned out without much drive to volunteer time on review queues anymore. If others feel similar, that will lead to worse content over time and a resultant less traffic.

I can accept that this is a misguided effort to reason with something unreasonable.

  • 8
    An interesting conspiracy theory, but it doesn’t really make any sense since all the press is focused specifically on how SE is a terrible place to be: either "PC company gone mad", “Bigots rage against trans people”, or “SE is a collapsing clustercluck”. And dismissing the problems that women and trans people face as "no big deal" is just a sign that you’re not trying to engage with the situation in good faith – divibisan Oct 13 at 23:08
  • 5
    @divibisan Who said it was not a big deal? It is a big deal, the way SE is going about it is not likely to help it though. Flags are the best and most proven way to handle this big deal. – Geronimo Oct 13 at 23:10
  • 1
    @divibisan Regarding your first point, see the graph. You can run it for yourself if you want, but obviously the horrors are not driving people away from Meta.SE. – Geronimo Oct 13 at 23:14
  • 2
    As to the plot, meta.se doesn’t make them money – they need to turn people into regular consumers of SE sites. If you showed that new people are coming (not just new to meta.se) and that they’re using the network sites, I’d be more convinced – divibisan Oct 13 at 23:17
  • 1
    @divibisan Once again, I have never said it was not a big deal... flags have handled a vast majority of all hostility in the past decade, but "haters gonna hate". The current efforts by SO Inc. really just exacerbates the situation, it isn't going to preemptively stop people from being hostile because the CoC is more explicit. Really the ONLY thing that IS going to be effective are flagging and work by the mods. Right now there is more work for them and less mods to do it because of how this was executed. – Geronimo Oct 13 at 23:23
  • 1
    @divibisan So who benefits? Not the mods, not the community with more restrictions and a confusing FAQ for CoC, not the LGBTQ+ community getting put up on a pedestal. SO Inc benefits even if it's just name recognition, after 2 weeks of publicized "bloopers" and what seems to be SO Inc fanning the flames it is really hard to credit this as an accident. I'll see about running the other graph you wanted at some point in the near future. – Geronimo Oct 13 at 23:33
  • But it gives better tools to deal with it, since the current tools haven’t been working well enough. You may think it’s working fine, since it doesn’t affect you, but many people disagree with that, and we should be willing to engage with those concerns, rather than putting ourselves on a pedestal as the arbiter of what is or is not a problem. – divibisan Oct 13 at 23:34
  • 3
    @divibisan I am answering the question posed by the OP about hostility from SO Inc. I'm not here to arbitrate what is or is not a problem. I would not agree that the new CoC and accompanying FAQ are better tools. At the end of the day we are still going to have to rely on mods handling flags. The new tools made it slightly more confusing and contentious and also serves to hold the LGBTQ+ community to a different standard, that's something which is not so good IMO. – Geronimo Oct 13 at 23:46
  • Let us continue this discussion in chat. – divibisan Oct 13 at 23:50
  • @Geronimo "any press is good press", but I suspect that the spike in traffic on meta is very significant on network-wide traffic. Can network-wide traffic be added to the graph so we can see the overall impact on traffic? I doubt the theory since it wouldn't be difficult to get more media outlets and political figures to pick it up, and it's been relatively quiet on that front, thus far. – anonymous user Oct 14 at 0:24
  • sorry I meant to say "isn't very significant on network-wide traffic" – anonymous user Oct 14 at 0:33
  • Sorry @anonymoususer I looked but can't see a way to generate that from SEDE, maybe it's 20K tool. – Geronimo Oct 14 at 16:05
  • I generally hate conspiracy theory, but let me hate this one with a little less contempt. – Félix Gagnon-Grenier Oct 15 at 23:17

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .