66

My irony bone has absolutely snapped in two over the last few days.

We have a company trying to monetize a system where they've spent tremendous resources assembling a huge community of experts to help those who are less expert solve problems they encounter. We've all learned that during this process, even the experts learn a great deal.

Most recently, considerable time and effort seems to have been dedicated to "improving" the community by minimizing the input of these experts.

So, in order to demonstrate just what possibilities are being passed on, I'd love to see a listing of ideas of how it can be done "better".

I'm not looking for solutions to problems (real or perceived). I'm looking for ideas for identifying and solving problems that might serve the community better than the Loop, and achieve the goals better.

I offer one humble suggestion below, but I am wholly convinced that the community can generate much better ideas.

  • 51
    If you mean that mini-survey, then as a way of requesting user feedback anything would be better. The only "feedback" that loop thing offers is a one-line text entry field where I can say what I dislike about SO (not SE, of course, SO only) and another asking what I like. A more effective way of giving feedback would be to use the BBQ in my yard and send a smoke signal. – terdon - stop harming Monica Nov 26 at 15:59
  • 14
    @terdon, your BBQ intrigues me, sir, and I would like to subscribe to your newsletter. – Frédéric Hamidi Nov 26 at 16:00
  • 14
    There's two points worth mentioning here: Is the community capable of coming up with a better solution? Sure. Is SE wiling to use that solution? Chances are high to absolute that they are not. – fbueckert Nov 26 at 16:13
  • 3
    There have been a lot of discussions in comments about using Discourse as a solution to many of the problems with Meta. It sounds very promising, and some of the collective thinking on it seems to have progressed nicely. I've not used it myself so I'm hoping one of its advocates will post a compelling answer. – user56reinstatemonica8 Nov 26 at 16:22
  • 16
    Also, let's not forget (I say "forget" as if I didn't just learn for the first time today :-)) that in 2009 Meta itself started because users went and set it up themselves on a crappy phpbb forum and Jeff Atwood, who hated the idea, reluctantly admitted that it was useful. I think just setting up something on, say, Discourse and seeing how it goes (inviting the CMs to join?) would be worth trying. Of course we'll discuss it here until it's good enough to discuss itself (meta meta meta?) – user56reinstatemonica8 Nov 26 at 16:25
  • 2
    @user56reinstatemonica8 nice piece of history, Thanks – Scott Seidman Nov 26 at 16:28
  • 4
    If only there was some kind of meta place where people could ask for feedback and get it. Maybe we could even have a voting system where questions and answers could be up- or down-voted. It could work... – Reinstate Monica - Goodbye SE Nov 26 at 17:17
  • No. The community isn't listened to. – user400654 Nov 26 at 17:19
  • 1
    Suppose the community does come up with such an idea. Whatever gives you the idea that the company will take it up? – Oded Nov 26 at 17:22
  • 1
    Whether the company uses the idea or not is not part of the question. The question is can a meta-post generate better ideas than what has been put forth fait accompli? A slew of realistic ideas would confirm the value of meta. – Scott Seidman Nov 26 at 17:26
  • What good is going to come out of ideas to make it better, when there's no chance of changing the process? All it's going to do is give people a target to point to when condemning SE's current implementation. – fbueckert Nov 26 at 17:40
  • Yes and no. We could maybe have a better idea, but we have no power at all to implement it. That's why I ask myself if it's really worth it. – Trilarion Nov 26 at 18:38
  • I have the BBQ, but it's much too rainy here in the UK. Smoke signals are out:) – Martin James Nov 26 at 19:16
  • 1
    Depends how you define better. Better at responding to the community's needs? Absolutely. Better at letting SE do whatever they want while shielding themselves from criticism? Probably not. – Nate S - Reinstate Monica Nov 26 at 21:08
  • I read that blog, but I couldn't figure out how we could actually get feedback to the SE staff. It's as vague on details as dependency injection is on which classes it uses. That means there's a list somewhere overwritten by 40 partial lists, and we lost the file that says which one has priority. – Gloweye Nov 27 at 15:04

12 Answers 12

76

"The loop" is not a solution to a problem, it is a diversion from a problem.

And - yes, we can come up with a better idea. In fact, we already have: Holding discussions on Meta.StackExchange.com , like we've done for years. They are not perfect but the loop is a really bad idea).

39

My interim solution is that SE declare a pause in its communications, and figure out how they can post a policy or a solution or a simple message without (a) errors that are easily avoidable (e.g., people of African descent) or (2) using a tone or language guaranteed to make things worse (e.g. we shouldn't have shipped on a Friday; long-time users don't understand...).

Based on long experience on writing public policy for an audience that makes us look like friendly puppies, I could suggest how to do this, but it involves training staff, which might be deemed provocative.

As to what we can do, which was the OP's question, we can use Meta to post suggestions in a constructive spirit; in a phrase, agree to a cease-fire.

Of course this depends on actually having a two-way conversation with SE, and so the first question is how to do this.

  • 4
    This is the right answer. I've been on the other side myself. There was a problem, and I thought that I could solve it with moar communicationz - constantly bringing the situation up, continually pestering people to resolve it right then or admit to me that it was no longer a problem so I could go home happy. The problem was that this upset many other people and caused them to not want to be around me, which delayed the development of any real solution. – Columbia says Reinstate Monica Nov 26 at 18:09
  • 1
    There's even a religion that teaches one not to "let the sun go down" on an interpersonal conflict, but to to fix it NAO. – Columbia says Reinstate Monica Nov 26 at 18:14
  • 4
    i.e. The first rule of holes is... – Reinstate Monica Nov 26 at 18:57
  • The "solve it now" solution can actually work in some cases. If I swipe my cousin's sports car for a hot date, I might actually be able to reconcile by bringing it back and paying for gas and mileage. The current issue is not of that nature. – Columbia says Reinstate Monica Nov 26 at 19:03
  • 2
    lol. Your proposal is that they stop ignoring us. – Richard Nov 26 at 22:53
  • 4
    "e.g. omitting African Americans"?! That comment is almost as bad as the poll that provoked it. There are on the order of 10 times as many Africans as African Americans: do they not count for anything? – Peter Taylor Nov 27 at 9:06
  • @PeterTaylor: Oh yeah, acknowledging the existence of the world outside the U.S. of A. would also be nice, but that's a comparatively minor problem, methinks ;) – Piskvor Nov 27 at 9:29
  • @Peter Taylor corrected. – ab2 ReinstateMonicaNow Nov 27 at 14:12
19

I'm looking for ideas for identifying and solving problems that might serve the community better than the Loop, and achieve the goals better.

What if we had a place where anybody could suggest an idea, then anybody (including moderators, staff members, other users) could show support for that idea and/or give feedback?

I'm talking about what we already have. Meta.stackexchange. In other words make no changes.

Meta versus Loop

Pros for meta:

All users answers/questions are weighted equally - No super-group. Even when moderators / well known users post, their feedback is treated like any other user

Most of the time, impossible to discriminate - You cannot tell a user's gender/race/religion/age based on a picture & a name

Transparency - Users can view feedback & view other users suggestions

Pros for Loop:

Lack of transparency - Users can be told what they want. Imagine being thanked for their great advice that helped with the latest update, all the while no one knows the 'who' or the 'how many'.

If a major player in SE disagrees with the feedback, they can simply pretend it doesn't exist.

Impossible to prove discrimination - See above transparency, unless SE chooses to admit it or the data they used is leaked. (I am not suggesting that 'The Loop' will cause discrimination, just that it could and couldn't be proven, while on the Meta it could be easily proven)

What about the issues?

In order to effectively answer this question we'd need to know the issues The Loop is trying solve, and the issues currently facing Meta.

Maybe these issues should have been posted on Meta along with a discussion about suggestions.

  • 14
    "The issue" is that SE Inc. higher-ups don't have strict enough control of the discussion here and have to actually earn trust and give decent answers, or have egg all over their face (which is the current state of affairs). – einpoklum - reinstate Monica Nov 26 at 17:12
16

Is the Community capable of coming up with better solutions than “the Loop”?

Yes.

I'm looking for ideas for identifying and solving problems that might serve the community better than the Loop, and achieve the goals better.

Look around you. There are ideas and feature requests all over this Meta and other sites Metas that would solve various problems sites face. There is no point in repeating them.

Besides that, there is really no point in figuring out other solutions because it would be exercise in futility. Company does not want our input nor our ideas.

13

FORK

One solution would be to completely cut our losses and move on to something better; such as building an open source alternative to SO. Stack Exchange could run in circles through their loop as much as they want, but everybody interested in an actual community-driven process wouldn't care because they moved elsewhere.

I'm aware of at least one such project that has already been started. Others might pop up with time. Given that (for now) all of the SE data is CC-licensed and bulk accessible via the data dumps, it's possible to leave this platform without losing the content.

11

As it stands, one major flaw of Through the Loop is that anyone can just use some IP-changing device and take the survey again, and again, and again. That seems like quite an oversight when dealing with a bunch of angry programmers. I'm not one and I could think of that, so I don't even want to imagine what people could pull off...especially if AI is used to analyze the data.

Which brings me to this: an appropriate mechanism for feedback would need to include some sort of accountability and transparency, while simultaneously protecting the person providing the feedback.

  • 5
    honestly, I'm surprised that SE hasn't been hacked beyond recognition by now. – Richard says Reinstate Monica Nov 26 at 20:41
  • 3
    Thats the thing with every anonymous survey ? – Jonas Wilms Nov 26 at 22:22
  • I'm not even a programmer and it came to mind . Just felt... Unethical – Journeyman Geek Nov 26 at 22:52
  • @journeymangeek I'm not sure which part felt unethical to you? I can see how what I wrote could be misinterpreted now that I re-read it. I mostly meant to emphasize that there are probably a lot of ways to game that survey. I feel like there's a lot at stake to use such a fragile instrument. – curious Nov 26 at 23:18
  • Oh sabotaging something I disagree with so it would be useless. – Journeyman Geek Nov 26 at 23:20
  • @journeymangeek Back when snail mail was a thing, that's the sort of stuff Amnesty international did to apply pressure on governments. I'm not sure if sabotaging the survey would do anything to bring things forward, but it could certainly backfire on the community. We need something sturdier than that. – curious Nov 26 at 23:39
  • @JourneymanGeek to be fair, its only unethical if you use it to game the system (like my father was visiting and I had to use incognito mode so I could take it after he did - he's been programming since the 70s when "only engineers did it" in his words). To be further fair, his response made mine look tame (due to the European race as only white people part) so I hope they don't ignore it because of that – LinkBerest Dec 4 at 4:23
9

Active Open Workgroups

I suggest that the Stack Exchange Framework is well-suited for setting up a community-based suggestion mechanism.

Each workgroup could be a Stack. Wide-reaching problems could be put up for discussion, and discussion could center around whether problems would benefit from the creation of a dedicated open workgroup. Guidelines can be created for the requirements of such a workgroup, much like Area 51. I would suggest that questions be of the form "How Can We Solve Problem X?", "What are the metrics for Problem X", and the like, and that more granular questions would eventually develop.

The scoring system seems like a natural fit for separating the wheat from the chaff.

By "workgroup", I just mean a group of people working toward a common goal, but suggest that assigned stack exchange sites could accommodate these people.

So, I see one Stack Exchange site for screening problems, and then one site for each problem so identified.

  • Could you clarify what a 'stack' and a 'work group' are? I was going to post a overly simplified answer but I'm thinking it might be a duplicate of this answer – dustytrash Nov 26 at 16:36
  • @dustytrash edited. Does that address your question? – Scott Seidman Nov 26 at 16:38
  • 1
    This has promise. It would have to be self-moderated, and/or have moderators elected by the users. Snark, no matter how witty and to the point, would have to be promptly deleted. (And I love snark.) If we started with an Area 51 proposal, it would have to be clearly differentiated from Meta and from The Workplace. And its supporters should regard it as a pre-pilot program to establish proof of principle, not as their cherished baby. – ab2 ReinstateMonicaNow Nov 26 at 18:33
  • @ab2ReinstateMonicaNow -- fleshing this out, there is a subtle difference between the way we style sites now. The number of questions would be limited, and the answers hopefully manifest. Would a proposal for a site focussed on Discussion and not Q/A be off the table for an Area51 site? – Scott Seidman Nov 26 at 18:37
  • The snark might be limited by enforcing brainstorming rules on comments. – Scott Seidman Nov 26 at 18:39
7

Let meta function like the We the People petition site

In the USA, people can create petitions to the White House using We the People. If they get 100 thousand signatories within 30 days then the administration promises to give an official response. That often won't satisfy the petitioners, but it will be a specific response to the petition. Many other governments around the world have similar petition systems.

It seems that SE staff are feeling overwhelmed by the volume of feedback posted to MSE and MSO. Honestly, I would've thought that the upvoting system would already be enough to help them prioritise what to read; of course it's unfortunate when a serious bug only gets 3 upvotes and so doesn't get seen, but there are many posts with over 100 upvotes that also get no response from SE staff.

I think an effective communication policy SE could adopt would be to make a promise that any meta post over X votes would get an official response (from an appropriate person; don't just leave it to the CMs who don't always know enough to say something) within Y time period. X and Y should be subject to change. I'm not sure what the initial values should be. Maybe x=50 and Y=1 month. If you go back further than September then 50 upvotes on MSE questions would usually be under 5 questions a month. This would not be a burdensome commitment for SE staff, but I believe it would help people feel heard a lot more than they are now.

  • The (current) voting system is deeply flawed. E.g. how many votes a post gets depends very much on how much attention it gets. Initial high attention for a post starts a positive feedback loop that gets it even more attention and thus more votes. It ought to work more like moderator elections. – Peter Mortensen Nov 27 at 8:33
  • 1
    @PeterMortensen That is how it works for these petition sites too FWIW. Do you mean that Meta in general should operate more like moderator elections, or that Meta as a petition system should operate more like elections? I'm not sure what you're thinking by that. – curiousdannii Nov 27 at 8:35
6

I think there are just two things to improve here: honesty and openness.

The ideas they came up with are actually going into the right direction because

1) Meta does not represent all users. Having interviews is way better to get insights into the way certain personas use the site. Also regular surveys are a better measurement than counting the number of rages on Meta (and on Twitter).

2) Meta is not designed for, and doesn't work well for bug tracking.

3) I'm not a moderator, so I can't really judge this, but I think that there is a lot to learn. Also during the recent events it seemed like that even the moderators did not always know how to act.

(1) and (2) can be solved by replacing that functionality of Meta with something new¹ and (3) by introducing that moderator council thing.

¹: And that's actually the problem here. It is still uncertain how exactly that'll look like. The way I interpret that, Meta will stay (I hope so), but that should've been made more clear. I'd prefer fewer words with more content (and some clarifications afterwards here instead of "listening"). Like this.

  • 3
    When you say average user, averaged over what? If you average over individuals who use the network at any point, the average user probably arrives via Google, gets their answer, and doesn't interact with the network again: interviews and surveys won't represent that user either. If you average over hours spent using the network, Meta becomes significantly less unrepresentative. – Peter Taylor Nov 27 at 9:00
  • @PeterTaylor does it matter? You usually want to improve the usability for everyone. – Jonas Wilms Nov 27 at 11:23
  • It's your point, not mine. If you decide it doesn't matter, you can edit your answer to delete it. – Peter Taylor Nov 27 at 11:37
5

This might be a bit contrarian, but I don't really think anyone involved with Stack Overflow (the company or community) are really in a position to come up better solutions to why people aren't using the site. The simple reason for this is that we are already vested in the site and culture and don't really have any perspective on why people aren't using it. This is also why I think that "The Loop" will really only be useful for addressing issues that the existing community is facing (ex., UI/UX, moderation, content contribution).

Outside of the user and maintainer base there are likely three groups of people:

  1. Former users of Stack Overflow that no longer use it.
  2. Potential users of Stack Overflow who are passively aware of the site, but aren't registered or contributors.
  3. People for whom Stack Overflow is largely irrelevant.

With regards to the third group, these are people for whom there is nothing Stack Overflow can do to attract them. They may stumble across the site, but since they aren't involved with programming in anyway, it's of no value to them. Net result, there is not much point in focusing on them, baring promoting other network sites.

The second group is a bit more complicated in that these are "drive-by users" that will use and consume the content but may or may not see the value in registering and contributing. While these users can be targeted via surveys, it is also difficult to get them since you are so dependent upon convenience sampling that your results may not be representative. Where Stack Overflow wishes to go with this group is going to be quite complicated and driven by their internal corporate goals, but attracting people is quite complicated.

The first group seems to be the one that is driving most of the discussion that we see. I suspect that Stack Overflow might be privy to some data that we do not have (ex., users sending them an email before leaving the site) or they are following why moderators were leaving. That being said, why people are leaving could be for a lot of different reasons ranging from professional (ex., career change, retirement) to personal due to the community. Depending on why people leave they may or may not be passively active on Stack Overflow or another network site. For example, despite being a private beta tester on Stack Overflow I'm not very active on the site any more, largely due to a career change. Due to my depth of knowledge I might be useful as someone to answer questions, but I'm not much of a Jon Skeet.

You will note that I focused much of this analysis on Stack Overflow and that's because I suspect the company is doing the same. The second most popular site on the network, Super User only has 834k users compared to 11m for Stack Overflow. Things drop quickly after that and I'm guessing that most network users come from Stack Overflow. Personally I think this focus on Stack Overflow is a mistake since I suspect that the user base has likely plateaued. Consider the following:

According to Evans Data Corporation, there were 23 million software developers in 2018, this number is expected to reach 26,4 million by the end of 2019 and 27,7 million by 2023. - DAXX

If the 26.4m estimate is correct then Stack Overflow has roughly 42% of the world's professional software developers. To put this in context, Facebook has 2.45 billion active users which is about 32% of the world's population (their target user base). While Stack Overflow says their target user base to be "anyone that writes code" I'm not really convinced that you are going to get most of them as registered users. Case and point, in my professional community I know a number of people who write code and will occasionally look things up on Stack Overflow, but don't see the point in asking questions since the answers are already there, or the active user base is on a listserv.

As such, I think Stack Overflow is trying to change directions a bit, but it needs to put less focus on programming (i.e., Stack Overflow and affiliated network sites) and more focus on building the features and user base to support other sites like Arqade (148k users) Personal Finance & Money (64k users), or Worldbuilding (58k users) to name a few. When you consider how many people play videogames, it's shocking that there are only 148k users on the site - why is that the case?

So in summary, I think Stack Overflow as a company really needs to start thinking about other network sites as opposed to just Stack Overflow and affiliated network sites. If you can only get 148k users on a Q&A website about video games, then you need to be asking the fundamental question of why people aren't using it. Stack Overflow in and of itself has likely plateaued and their isn't much growth potential no matter how much the company or community tries look for solutions.

  • Yes, that would be in line with the reason for taking VC money. However, if they could change or amend Stack Overflow for use as a help desk they could gain many more user hours (=traffic=revenue) - e.g. 2x number of users and 5x (average) engagement. Imagine something using a combination of AI, human search engine, and humans powered by gamification to make it much more efficient than today to find answers. Today it is not very efficient to find answers by asking questions nor by searching in existing Stack Overflow answers. The current Q&A model is not sufficient. Something new is required. – Peter Mortensen Dec 1 at 4:36
4

Yes, the community should be able to come up with something better. The Loop has basically three questions that concern Stack Overflow (ignoring the questions asking for person details). Three questions are hardly enough to get constructive feedback and are unlikely to provide SE with new information.

Personally I am really surprised by the Loop. This was announced with much fanfare, it was even delayed to improve it and we ended up with eight questions, with some question lacking basic quality control. It reeks of sheer panic.

  • 1
    But wasn't it just the first incarnation? - there will be more in the future(?). – Peter Mortensen Nov 27 at 8:39
  • You are optimistic @PeterMortensen. I see this more as a justification to shut down/ignore the Meta sites – Alex Nov 27 at 15:02
2

Offsite communications, at this point, are the most effective solutions, as SE is elevating censorship to the level of an art form.

Only an environment where SE cannot edit, delete, refuse to display, or otherwise censor will suffice.

  • 2
    ...isn't "offsite communications" exactly what The Loop is? – scohe001 Nov 26 at 20:21
  • 3
    @scohe001 not if SE controls it. – Richard says Reinstate Monica Nov 26 at 20:40
  • @scohe001: "Shout your problems into the void" is communication, yes, but the term usually implies two-way communication ;) – Piskvor Nov 27 at 9:31
  • 4
    @scohe001 They screeched like a choir of scorched cats when someone pitched a fit on Twitter. They're more concerned about offsite communication than what users think – Richard says Reinstate Monica Nov 27 at 12:27
  • Maybe you could edit to specify what you mean then? It seems there's some misunderstanding around "offsite communications." – scohe001 Nov 27 at 13:51
  • 2
    @RichardsaysReinstateMonica you, Sir, are a poet. – Mena Nov 27 at 14:41
  • 2
    @scohe001 A questionnaire is not a two way communication, especially not if SE ignores 22% of the responses....probably because they don't like the answer – Alex Nov 27 at 15:14

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