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It looks like SE has fired two of the most experienced CMs just now. What does this mean for the community, and for the plans SE has for the future of the network?

In a blog post about new feedback mechanisms SE identified the following challenge:

Difficulty scaling support for moderators from our Community Management team

The proposed solution was a moderator advisory board, but how is that supposed to work if SE is gutting the CM team at the same time? Does SE even care about solving this issue, or has supporting the mods been deemed as a cost center that can be streamlined?

Do these actions by SE represent a shift in strategy? Is SE giving up on community management, and concentrating on selling Teams and SE Enterprise?

  • 5
    Animuson and Grace Note also moved to the support team revision 66. I don't know if that's a new change, or if it happened a while back and animuson updated because the thread was bumped by someone else. – doppelgreener Jan 13 at 18:16
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    The support team has been seperate for a long while – Journeyman Geek Jan 13 at 18:18
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    @doppelgreener It was almost a year ago – Lightness Races BY-SA 3.0 Jan 13 at 19:07
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    Well, not having a CM team kinda solves the problems with scaling, doesn't it? – Chris says Reinstate Monica Jan 13 at 19:08
  • @LightnessRaceswithMonica Thank you, that's helpful to know. – doppelgreener Jan 13 at 19:12
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    Its been ongoing. I think that Cesar was the first enlargement of the team for years but damn the current round is a bigger blow than the last one. – Journeyman Geek Jan 13 at 19:13
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    @DanNeely Robert Cartaino is gone too. – Robert Columbia Jan 13 at 19:14
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    @Journeyman, Catija's been in for two years, right? Was she the next-to-last hire? – Frédéric Hamidi Jan 13 at 19:25
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    Yup. But she replaced a CM who left the company - so the team size was about the same. – Journeyman Geek Jan 13 at 19:26
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    It sucks, but it also isn't uncommon for companies to restructure themselves which means cutting out roles/departments they think they can do without. What boggles me is that they are let go instead of given new roles. – Gimby Jan 14 at 10:22
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    @JourneymanGeek Cesar isn't bad. He keeps a cool head as far as I know and he responds to requests for clarification. – user651518 2 days ago
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    Uhm. No complaints - actually that he increased the CM numbers was notable and cause for... hope. – Journeyman Geek 2 days ago
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    It's a speculation but perhaps to afford to hire new Chief Product Officer. – wha7ever 2 days ago
  • 3
    "difficulty scaling" can often mean "nobody wanted to pay for it" – OrangeDog yesterday
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    Jon Ericson has left. – Raedwald 8 hours ago
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After this day, I think the most likely answer to this question is: because they can!

The fine words and apologies we heard early on last year when the whole mess started, those were all just appeasement. They meant nothing. Empty slogans, uttered to calm down uproar, never intended to be lived up to.

The company can do that because the community has no way to inflict true pressure on the company. We agree with them, love their work ... we put in more volunteer work, they make more profit. We disagree, we plea, we stop, ... seems to not matter enough.

The other day I saw a post on quora.com where a top writer announced to stop writing (to protest the insane Quora partner program). Guess what: many other top writers chimed in.

Unless you magically convince 50 to 100 of the top writers on Stack Overflow to do something like that, the most realistic answer is:

SE Inc will continue to act like this. And we can still only complain and walk away or not. It doesn't make any difference.

  • 42
    I think you’re overthinking this. SE has been dropping hints since last year or longer that they’re not doing well financially. The CEO stepped away without a replacement and then when a replacement was found months later he’s a known M&A guy. The rationale given, when the ideological fluff is removed, for the various “welcome newbies” campaigns have been that the regular use base is declining alarmingly and the new fresh blood. And so forth. The staff has been cut because they need to cut costs. That’s it. – Dan Bron Jan 13 at 21:49
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    "overthinking this" I don't think so. At least one member of staff has been stating publicly for a while that they are profitable. There's a comment I remember too, but I can't find it; it's probably under a deleted answer. – jscs Jan 13 at 22:01
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    @jscs but in the world of MBAs profitable isn't acceptable, you have to be maximally profitable even if it means destroying what the company stood for. – gbjbaanb Jan 13 at 22:49
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    @DanBron Well, we will never know. What for sure could have been known: A) that these firings(?) would be noticed and that B) this will cause uproar again and C) result in even more people walking away, further deteriorating a broken place. To me, that sounds like a high financial risk to take ... – GhostCat salutes Monica C. Jan 14 at 8:34
  • @GhostCatsalutesMonicaC. I'd say that this is impossible to not notice. Even if you stop the CMs from just flat out tweeting about it, the first time they speak somebody will notice the lack of a diamond. And even if they don't chat, they are bound to be mentioned at some point, somebody looks at their profile, and there will be questions. – John Dvorak Jan 14 at 8:52
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    Technically they might have if the community didn't beat them to the punch. The community gave them no time to act first. – John Dvorak Jan 14 at 8:56
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    @GhostCatsalutesMonicaC. - "the minute their manager told them, I would have posted an announcement on MSE. - I think you're dramatically overestimating the important of MSE on SE's thinking. – Richard Jan 14 at 9:16
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    @Richard I am not talking about what SE Inc does. I am talking about what would be reasonable preparation. Even a manager who dislikes MSE should understand that MSE affects the motivation of plenty of people to contribute to the platform, and thus to the "revenue" of the company. It doesn't matter if the CEO has "community" in his genes (or not so much). What I am saying is that even from a business perspective, it is not wise to ignore people that contribute to your platform. – GhostCat salutes Monica C. Jan 14 at 9:22
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    @DanBron I think you hit the nail on the head. I don't comment here on Meta much, but amid all the "things" that have gone on here the last few months, and some other seemingly unrelated comments - and then a light bulb went on - follow the money; and the direction toward enhancing monetization has been unmistakable. And, let's face it, to someone who only counts beans, its probably next to impossible to show how CM's add to the profit line. – David W Jan 14 at 16:05
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    @Dan Bron: So what will the end game look like? Slow liquidation? – Peter Mortensen 2 days ago
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    @PeterMortensen I don't reckon there is a lot to liquidate. The content isn't sellable (it's CC licensed) and the software is decent but not angel investor satisfying decent to sell. They're probably aching to get acquired by someone big. If not my guess is as good as yours but just shutting it down and selling the assets piecemeal might happen. – Magisch 2 days ago
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    @PeterMortensen Acquisition. They are looking for strong growth numbers in Teams (hence the generous free packages they’re offering at the moment; they don’t need $ from it yet, just user count for future potential) to show the base is monetizable, and good baseline P&L (hence increased ads and reduced headcount). – Dan Bron 2 days ago
  • @DanBron But will the buyer really buy the story they are presenting them? The enterprise Q&A software might fly, but the public Q&A will never be a cash cow for the service provider; it should at least pay for some engineers and CMs like Shog. The ad revenue should be enough to keep the service going. Maximizing short-term profit while risking that the long-term public Q&A business collapses - that is such a simple story that potential buyers should be able to look through it, or don't they? On the other hand, history is full of examples where investors were fouled easily. – Trilarion 2 days ago
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    @DanBron Re your first comment, in any other context I'd probably say you're spot on. But in this particular instance I think it's reasonable to be suspicious of more going on: it's absolutely no secret that certain SE top brass are not wild about having direct community engagement (in fact, they've specifically stated they'll be rolling it back in favour of hand-picked survey targets) so why wouldn't you get rid of your Community Managers, not because you can't afford them but because their roles don't align with your goals – Lightness Races BY-SA 3.0 2 days ago
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    @LightnessRaceswithMonica - "The people you might hope to reach are not reading Meta"*. In fact it would appear that staff have been given specific instructions not to waste their time here and to actively stay away; i.stack.imgur.com/74b49.png – Richard 2 days ago
74

No idea.

But now it would be a good time for remaining CMs, particularly those higher up in the food chain (like Jon Ericson or Tim Post) to post a few words beyond the sad excuse for corporate boilerplate Juan M. was "able to share".

Even if, as has become standard these days around here, we can't ever read the whole story because of "reasons", at least a passable effort should be made to communicate when momentous events like these happens.

These were extremely highly-regarded community stewards, almost universally well regarded. They were particularly influential in how the product and community was shaped as it grew.

They can't—or at least should not—be dismissed silently.

These shadows can only be dispelled by being open and shedding light into the situation. If there is any light to be shed, which some doubt.

We used to have a "default public" philosophy around here. It's a bit sad how far have things fallen.


In case this reads like an accusation of sorts aimed at Tim and/or Jon... it is not.

It's just that I believe they would be the appropriate people to communicate with the community under the circumstances.

I have no way to know if they are choosing not to speak or are being told not to do so (because of the aforementioned lack of transparency), but I'm taking their silence —coupled with their track record— as confirmation that if they are not saying anything, is because they have been told not to.


It looks like we won't be hearing from Jon in any case.

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    I don't think they (Jon, Tim, etc) can. They have been prevented from interacting meaningfully with the community as they have in the past for some time. – hat Jan 14 at 10:02
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    If I were Jon Ericson or Tim Post, I'd be polishing up my resume. – ouflak 5 hours ago
51

The most rational and obvious answer is that the Stack Overflow company is reducing the costs to improve their financial situation.

Imagine being a manager at SO whose job is to optimize for profits. You'd ask yourself, "What can a community manager do that volunteer moderators working for free can't? Write posts on Meta? Others do it just fine and there's already written enough. Moderate sites? That's what volunteer moderators do, no point in paying for something others do for free. Build new sites and communities? Who cares, we're focusing solely on Stack Overflow at the moment, we need profits. Resolve conflicts between moderators and guide the communities? Let's just add more rules and silence any conflicts, it's surely easier. Write blog posts, be active on social networks? We have dedicated writers for that and they're much better at optimizing texts for SEO. Dig into internal data to unravel voting rings? We can surely survive without that, reputation is meaningless after recent updates anyway."

No matter what responsibility of community managers you pick, you can always pretend that it's either done by volunteers for free or isn't absolutely necessary. Relationship between the company and the community is ruined, so keeping a community manager just because he's on good terms with the community doesn't sound profitable.

Basically, Stack Overflow no longer feels the need for the community, so they see community managers as no longer necessary too. Nothing personal, just business.

  • 7
    Yeah well, obviously the CMs were really good at one thing: keeping those volunteers who do all the work motivated and engaged. But probably one needs a PhD in sociology, or at least a Master in psychology to understand that. – GhostCat salutes Monica C. Jan 14 at 8:32
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    The reasons laid out in this answer make sense and SO could have just said so, but the marketing speak posted instead is just unbearable. Also, even though it might be just business, it might still be the wrong decision. Without good community managers (and Shog was quite good at it) the community relation suffers. That might have long term implications, which might cost much more in the long run than they save in the short run. – Trilarion Jan 14 at 8:59
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    @Trilarion Only "quite" good? – AJM-Reinstate-Monica Jan 14 at 12:58
  • @AJM-Reinstate-Monica English understatement, even though I'm not British, I'm a fan of it. Means something between very good and spectacular. :) – Trilarion Jan 14 at 13:11
  • @Trilarion Sorry, but being as I am British - the ordering is (quite < very < spectactular). Humourous understatement I get, but come on - Shog deserves way better than "quite". – AJM-Reinstate-Monica Jan 14 at 13:16
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    @AJM-Reinstate-Monica Sorry, I can't edit the comment anymore. For the record: Shog was an outstanding, spectacular community moderator and I really mean it. And having made that clear it really fits into the argument I wanted to make here that community relations will suffer tremendously because of it. – Trilarion Jan 14 at 13:21
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    If "just layoffs" is really the reason, as opposed to the Saturday Night Massacre that it looks like, it would really really behoove them to flat out say so in plain and simple language. It wouldn't help a lot, but it would make appearances a little better. – jscs Jan 14 at 20:06
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    Then again, I don't know why I'm bothering to even think about improving the situation, let alone offering a suggestion. – jscs Jan 14 at 20:48
  • @jscs they aren't going to want to provide any explanations that might hurt their buyout negotiations they're probably having right now. – pacoverflow 9 hours ago
49

Do these actions by SE represent a shift in strategy? Is SE giving up on community management, and concentrating on selling Teams and SE Enterprise?

It has not. Least in the latter part of the Joel Era, there was a focus on Careers (now Jobs), at the expense of Q&A. SO did get some development, but a good chunk of the network kinda ran itself. CMs who left weren't replaced, and as a small team, that we interacted with a lot, every loss was felt keenly.

I'm sure a lot of folks are new enough not to know.

The focus on Careers ended with pretty an entire office laid off, and cuts across the board. It took quite a while to begin recovering, and it did, just a little.

It's a reversion to the strategy that failed before - spend as little as possible on the community (since most of the major structural changes are either in place, or shared across products), focus on selling products (on the assumption that the SO brand name on its own will sell the product, not the hundreds or thousands of folks who regularly use and contribute to the site), and cut back on the community and resources to support it.

Difficulty scaling support for moderators from our Community Management team

Which will get worse as institutional knowledge gets stripped away. Trust is lost. We are offered a place at an empty table covered in dust. Y'all have kept making the team smaller and leaner and it's suffered. It's being scaled the wrong way.

Sadly, I don't see that realisation, even if we have another event like the Careers not working out at this point, that the community is the unique thing this place has.

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    Additionally to them not realizing the value of CM, they might get caught in a vicious downward spiral. Less community management might decrease the value of the network, which in turn leads them to make further cuts in order to remain profitable, which in turn further decreases the value ... (race to the bottom). By wanting too much out of it, they might ruin it completely, maybe in a slow but steady manner. – Trilarion 2 days ago
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    That I suspect may be the idea. On the assumption that SO is too big to fail. As long as the numbers during the IPO are good, current management certainly dosen't care – Journeyman Geek 2 days ago
  • Unfortunately, the old saying is true. "The bigger they are, the harder they fall." – Cindy 13 hours ago
23

I'd like to put forth the "barriers to progress" possibility, though I admit I don't entirely see the value in speculation and I recognize that I'm only writing out of a sense of disquiet and loss.


Obviously I have no authority to speak on this matter, as nobody here really does, and this is therefore purely conjecture.

It seems to me that these questions...

Do these actions by SE represent a shift in strategy? Is SE giving up on community management, and concentrating on selling Teams and SE Enterprise?

... imply that a focus on Teams and SE Enterprise at the exclusion of Q&A are the way strategy is expected to shift.

Maybe so.

Other answers have thus far been suggesting that the alternative explanation is simply one of cost-cutting.

Maybe so.


As an (outside, mainly) observer of the the Mess that's been going on lately, I'd like to raise another possibility:

For whatever reason, there has been an apparent concerted effort over recent months to fundamentally reshape the social fabric of the platform. The "Welcoming" and "Pronouns" issues are the obvious examples. Although the underlying calculation is most likely profit-related somehow, it is possible there's a social-consciousness driver of some sort too.

While everyone involved is seemingly disallowed from actually discussing the situation, I think it is not unreasonable to think that Shog9 and Robert Cartaino would have been stubborn holdouts for preserving the core philosophy of the site that they were so instrumental in crafting and maintaining over the years. Stubborn, and undoubtedly influential, even internally. So much so that to continue "the changes" it made sense to remove the barriers to progress.

The ultimate goal? I have no clue. Seemingly though it isn't to continue to be the best Q&A site in existence, unfortunately.


Or, maybe their salaries weren't worth it. /sarcasm

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    That was also my first thought (first paragraph). Why keep someone with the hard-earned Usenet experience if you were too young to have experienced the Eternal September event, and don't think it is important, and don't want to hear about it? Especially if it is believed that it is newbies that are going to provide the required growth. That being said, there is room for innovation in the newbies area, but it will require something radically different than the square text boxes we have been typing ... – Peter Mortensen 2 days ago
  • 'cont ... into since the BBS / Usenet days. – Peter Mortensen 2 days ago
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    The ultimate goal is probably to provide a lot of value to newbies (without suffering), and consequently achieve the 10x. Merging with Glitch would be a logical next step (simply plugin/integrate Glitch, tweak it/extend it to cover more than web development, and voilà, you have an instant beginner-friendly place - this also avoids having to extend the existing software too much (for one or the other reason, very difficult)). – Peter Mortensen 2 days ago
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    Beginner-friendly development of C++ embedded applications in a simulated online environment. Why not? There could even be real hardware somewhere remote. Remote controlled robots. And premium paid options. Competitions for engagement. – Peter Mortensen 2 days ago
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    @PeterMortensen Good business idea. One could combine that with this platform even. Send all the newbies to this paid Glitch learn thingy, and only leave the tough questions that can't be answered easily here. Then use the knowledge generated here to display to Glitch thingy users when appropriate. – Trilarion 2 days ago
19

Thanks to the link provided by @IanRingrose, here is a fuller quote from Shog, which gives us a bit more information about what is going on:

Shog9:

I have to say something. I don't want to, but I fear my silence is harmful here. Some of you are angry, hurt, afraid. I feel that way too. It is natural. But please, be careful how and when you express those feelings.

My former colleagues have an amazing skill: they are able to understand what people are trying to say. To read between the lines and see, not just what is written, but what is meant, what is felt. And to respond accordingly, with care and empathy. They can communicate.

And right now, they are being told not to use that skill. Told that they MUST not use that skill. I know this because I was told this. It has been ratcheting for over a year now: more and more "musts" and "must nots" - "say this AND ONLY THIS."

At this point, they are operating under an unbelievable amount of pressure. And you have seen the results of this: "they gulped out fine folly about dignity and acquiescence".

You may think, in expressing your anger, that your words will reach and influence those behind the scenes, those calling the shots, writing the words that MUST, eliding those that MUST NOT. But know that the influence takes only one form: yet another click of the ratchet.

Your 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.

Please don't do this to them. They didn't sign up for it, they do not deserve it. Whatever this thing is that is happening, it has more momentum now than ever before; I do not wish to see it roll over them as it did me.

Spacemonaut:

I'm worried there might be nothing those of us reading this can do. We've got things we're justifiably angry about, and most people will be vocal. The awful communication is itself a source of anger. It seems inevitable the ratchet will eventually tighten so much something snaps.

Shog9:

Believe me, I know how hard it is. Every muscle in my body aches with the strain.

…they gulped out fine folly about dignity and acquiescence and anything else that could make believe that the rabbits loved the shining wire

18

Shog9 has just posted on Twitter (read the complete thread):

And right now, they are being told not to use that skill. Told that they MUST not use that skill. I know this because I was told this. It has been ratcheting for over a year now: more and more "musts" and "must nots" - "say this AND ONLY THIS

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