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Yesterday, there were some major staffing changes, and the end result is that two long-time Community Managers, Shog9 and Robert Cartaino, are no longer with Stack Overflow, Inc. This seems to be a nonsensical move at a time when the Community Team is stretched thinner and thinner each day. Firing two of them would seem to be at odds with keeping the network healthy and functioning.

We haven't been able to get more than a cursory response from the company as to what the heck is going on. I've been able to formulate maybe a couple explanations where a move like this makes an ounce of sense. Foremost among them - and one that I think is in the front of the minds of many - is that the company needs fewer Community Managers going forward because there will be fewer communities to manage. Area 51 - where Robert was the guiding soul - could be formally shut down. Many of the smaller network sites could be at risk - after all, efforts to bring them out of beta or form new sites seem to have ground to a halt.

If this is the case, it would be nice to know. One thing I have yet to get an answer to from a CM is whether or not either Area 51 or network sites are at risk of being shut down. I'm not trying to be alarmist; I'd simply like to go to bed tonight feeling slightly more confident that I won't wake up to HSM or Mythology gone tomorrow. Other questions have addressed SO's broader goals and community management strategy, but I don't think anyone's explicitly asked the question:

Are there plans to shut down Area 51 or beta sites across the network?

If someone has, I can't find the answer. I wouldn't mind getting one. If I'm completely misreading things, I think a "no" should be easy enough to get, and I'd like to see it out in the open.

Update, April 14 2020

It looks like for the first time in about a year, a new site has entered private beta - Drones and Model Aircraft. This seems like a really promising sign. This doesn't necessarily indicate that Area 51 is here to stay for any long period of time, but it does mean that SO is not opposed to the creation of new sites.

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    Magisch's Cynical prediction of the day: You won't get an official answer until it's happening very shortly, if ever. – user308386 Jan 14 '20 at 14:57
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    The first official notification of changes will be when the sites URL changes to gimmieTehCodzPlsTyThxBye.com – Dan Is Fiddling By Firelight Jan 14 '20 at 15:09
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    @Magisch In German, we call that Die Macht des Faktischen, the normative power of the factual. In other words, your prediction better read: you won't get an official answer until it happened, and then very hastily written up, after the first MSE complaint shows up. – GhostCat Jan 14 '20 at 15:11
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    I cannot help feel this will prompt management at SE to shove out another blog post telling us all how "brilliantly" things are going and how much they care about the community, i.e. more rubbish no one believes. Well, neither will the investors you are trying to woo, I think. Seen internet companies go this way before and it feels like I'm seeing it again. – StephenG Jan 14 '20 at 15:16
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    I'm sure they will loop us in when it's time. – yivi Jan 14 '20 at 15:17
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    Maybe, considering they're asking if they should extend SO to cover SU, SF and Devops: meta.stackoverflow.com/q/392689/3627607 ? – Tensibai Jan 14 '20 at 15:19
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    Who's going to want to start any new sites though? It would be completely insane with the current status of the network. Area 51 is already dead. – Lundin Jan 14 '20 at 15:36
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    2020 is the year of change... for the worse, as we can already see. I have no doubt meta will phased out soon. – Script47 Jan 14 '20 at 15:47
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    @Lundin two proposals are currently on commitment process as of now. It's not that dead it seems – CaldeiraG Jan 14 '20 at 16:12
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    @CaldeiraG Not dead yet. It is in a deep unreversible comma with severe brain damage, multiple organs failures, generalized infection in an intensive care unit and it just got a cardiopulmonary arrest. But it is still alive! – Victor Stafusa Jan 14 '20 at 17:18
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    Why have community managers when you are not planning to have a community? – user316129 Jan 14 '20 at 18:37
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    @Magisch Kind of like this? – EJoshuaS - Reinstate Monica Jan 14 '20 at 20:54
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    @Script47 They already effectively announced that they plan to kill off Meta. – EJoshuaS - Reinstate Monica Jan 14 '20 at 20:55
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    @CaldeiraG From what I understand, everything Area 51 was handled by Robert. So propose away, there will nobody listening. Just as there will be nobody listening to the community in any other channel of communication either. Show up outside SO headquarters and yell in a megaphone, they won't listen to you still. – Lundin Jan 15 '20 at 7:27
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    On the other hand, there's noone to close the proposals down either. ;-) – Christian Rau Jan 15 '20 at 9:18
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+50

TL;DR: We're not planning to shut down any SE sites. The future of Area 51 is still uncertain.

Last week the CM team met with Teresa, our new CPO, and we talked about what the future of the network looks like. The conversation started off with the understanding that shutting down SE sites was off the table. So, unless we stumble upon the usual reasons for shutting down a site — that is, if no one's willing to step up to help moderate it — everything will keep going as usual.

As Teresa noted in her blog post sharing the Q1 roadmap, we're working on our commitment to responding on MSO, MSE, and the Moderator Team. And as you point out, the CM team is a bit... leaner than usual: so most of our attention is going to SO and MSE for the time being. But once that commitment's been in effect for a while, I hope that we'll be able to define a similar type of commitment for the rest of the network too. That being said, this doesn't mean we'll stop paying attention to the network in the meantime — despite the sheer number of sites, they don't generate a proportional amount of work for the CM team, so we should be able to keep adding stuff to our backlog, and assisting the moderators and communities as our time permits.

Area 51 is a bit trickier... While shutting down healthy communities is off the table, we still need to make a decision on whether or not we're gonna be able to sustain new ones coming into existence. I know the launch of new sites has been somewhat declining over the years, but even so we're not sure of whether we can provide these new communities with the level of support new communities on the network have become accustomed to. Furthermore, none of the current CMs have touched Area 51, in a moderation capacity, in... maybe forever, really? We'll provide updates on this once we've made a decision.

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    not sure of whether we can provide these new communities with the level of support new communities on the network have become accustomed to.: - At OR.SE we got by without daily hand-holding. We were quite happy if a CM dropped by every few days to do the queue (because everyone had too little rep to do anything). You're welcome to drop by the chat where I'm very certain that the mods will say that things are running smoothly. Different site's mileage no doubt would vary. – Rob Feb 26 '20 at 19:26
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    I'm referring specifically to the period of time between private beta launch and pro-tem mods being appointed/elected. But even then, to your point, your mileage may vary. – JNat Feb 26 '20 at 19:31
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    Thank you for this update. Even if things are still uncertain, the information is appreciated. – Rand al'Thor Feb 26 '20 at 19:37
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    Yes. Even if it's a little funky I think many people appreciate Area 51 (unless their proposal gets closed) and using it as a staging area - We hope that site remains open. The launches of both our Quantum Computing (which had some CM assistance) and Operations Research (which didn't have a CM every day) are successful, the pre-mod and pro-tem eras were not too bumpy; but people on those sites tend towards people whom ... hmmm ... don't have sites that have a bumpy start. – Rob Feb 26 '20 at 19:53
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    @JNat: What you are suggesting is that the number of sites within the Network remains frozen as is, with no new sites ever being added. I thought about this: some of the most popular new sites are about topics that did not even exist 10 years ago (Bitcoin, Quantum Computing, etc.). What if in the next 10 years there's a new type of currency (beyond cryptocurrency) or there's a new type of computing (different even from quantum computing). Do you still want the SE network to be frozen only to have sites about things that were interesting in the pre-2020 era? – user1271772 Feb 26 '20 at 21:21
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    I don't, @user1271772, no. And I'm not really suggesting that we do that either. I'm simply saying we need to make a decision there, and yes, we are aware of implications such as the ones you're mentioning. – JNat Feb 27 '20 at 9:25
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I think the obvious answer is "Yes".

SE, as a company, is very clearly in the process of re-thinking their core competencies, in ways that make them attractive to investors. That was, after all, what the whole battle for inclusivity was about, and to some degree, why they took such radical action against Monica. There is a determined effort to

  1. Prove the community is inclusive to everyone
  2. Prove that SE is no longer elitist

This is both an effort to raise engagement numbers, and, i'm certain, to assuage worries that the community is toxic. Overall, the sentiment from the loop is that meta is no longer useful, and i'd expect to see it die in the next few months. The recent firing of community managers is another cost saving at the expense of the community move.

At a more "meta" level, you can see how the focus SE has shown recently is aimed at teams and their "core" site, stack overflow. The loop survey only wanted feedback from SO users, not the wider community. The recent hiring of a new CPO without as much as a whisper on their blog or meta, is a further hint that as a whole, SE has realized that all the side communities, not just meta, are neither profitable, nor useful to their long term goals.

In the search of profitability, I expect Area 51 to die, and soon all the minor communities that have experienced mod attrition. If not directly axing them, then letting them die on the vine from neglect, and then in a few months/years, axing them with the excuse that they're "not active enough".

EDIT: Some of the replies to the Dietrich question heavily support the idea that SEI is pivoting hard, and you should expect A51 and associated subsites to be at a minimum neglected.

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    All of this. Well presented. – Lightness Races in Orbit Jan 15 '20 at 18:55
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    I question if cost saving was the true reason for the firing of community managers. – Ian Ringrose Jan 16 '20 at 8:56
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    This. Amazing amount of cognitive dissonance on SE's part. It's very clear your two bullet points are indeed what they're trying to do, whilst doing everything they can to do the opposite. This would be much more humorous to me if I didn't care about SE's wellbeing. – Qix - MONICA WAS MISTREATED Jan 16 '20 at 12:54
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I'm not capable of answering the question you want to hear answered, but I am capable of not stoking any more conspiracy theories.

I will state, though, I don't believe that it'd be a wise move to shutter the smaller sites.

I haven't been to Area 51 since Anime and Manga SE was pioneered, but it's often the case that people come to this site looking to create a community (when the inverse was always championed instead). So, it's understandable that the site's traffic is... not that high. It's also the case that the long-term sustainable engagement isn't high either, since...well, once the community you support is created, you don't have much impetus to hang around on Area 51 anymore.

To be blunt: Area 51 was a ghost town long before any of these changes started happening. The amount of staff engagement and community engagement never seemed to be all that high to begin with, and thus, this seems to be a natural progression for this site.

What would keep people on Area 51 is if there was constant compelling and engaging feedback and support for sites which are in beta or have launched centralized there. The tricky thing is, the CMs engage directly with the sites themselves once they're established - which is The Right Thing™ to do there anyway - and Area 51 is treated as the slightly burnt launch pad that the site once used to get off the ground and into its own orbit. So...there's not much reason to stick around and engage on that site, really.

Then we have to grapple with the harsh and fundamental reality. There's only one site on the network which drives the majority of revenue. If raising revenue is important, then the primary focus needs to be on that site as opposed to others.

I understand that Stack Exchange has committed to doing what they can for smaller sites, but that's not quite the same as having people explicitly working on or focused on those smaller sites.

However, the smaller sites on the network still have a place, and removing those sites would fly counter to what the official word from staff actually is.

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    “As best we can” when resources are being reduced isn’t much of a commitment. The priority in every recent communication is technologists. Not removing the sites is the path of least effort, so they’ll stick around, but it will be difficult for them to get much site-specific attention. There’s only so many hours in a day. – ColleenV Jan 15 '20 at 19:10
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    Regarding "Stack Exchange has committed to doing what they can for smaller sites", mattdm on Codidact (the author of the linked question) has a complete opposite understanding: "It’s also clear Stack Exchange isn’t going do anything to improve things". – Rebecca J. Stones Jan 16 '20 at 3:09
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    @RebeccaJ.Stones: Right...this is what turned me off of Codidact. It seems like there's just a lot of angry ex-Exchangers on there, and while I think they can build a product, and be somewhat successful with that, all I've seen from them is frustration expressed and compounded without an actual site to land back on. – Makoto Jan 16 '20 at 6:18
  • @Makoto, how is it that you saw that "hidden" question? I can't see it on the main Area51 Discussion page. I was one one that gave the accepted answer! It seems I cannot see Robert Cartaino's answer anymore, but he said "you are going about this backwards" and "your proposal will definitely not succeed" (or something like that, the answer was deleted so I can't see it anymore), and I answered by saying that the asker should feel welcomed to go about it in the way he feels best, and that Robert should not predict with 100% certainty that the proposal will fail. – user1271772 Jan 20 '20 at 18:51
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    @user1271772: Oh, it seems to have been deleted. I can't see either, anymore. I'll add a Web Archive link a bit later. – Makoto Jan 20 '20 at 19:19
  • @Makoto: Where would you get the web archive from? – user1271772 Jan 21 '20 at 3:20
  • Yeah, working on that...seems like Robert's account was nuked wholesale. At least, I'm not finding any reference to it. Going to see if I can find something to stick in there, or at least use this as a catalyst for a new Meta question. – Makoto Jan 21 '20 at 3:54
  • @Makoto: Did you manage to find a web archive? – user1271772 Feb 26 '20 at 21:23
  • @user1271772: No, I never did, unfortunately. – Makoto Feb 26 '20 at 21:39
  • Thank you at least for trying :) The new answer here 2 hours ago, saying that Area51 might shut down unexpectedly soon, has created a lot of anxiety for me since I have put so much effort into recruiting new users to commit to my proposal on Area51, and my community has had to deal with bugs that have made it almost impossible for them to participate in Area51, but can participate perfectly fine on the rest of the network. I wonder if you might consider helping me by committing to my proposal, which they seem to be saying they are "unsure" whether they will shut down due to lack of CMs? – user1271772 Feb 26 '20 at 21:46
  • It's for the design of new materials! Solar cells, photovoltaics, bio-materials, new materials for better batteries, energy storage materials, stronger and lighter materials for cars, planes, spaceships, etc. area51.stackexchange.com/proposals/122958/… – user1271772 Feb 26 '20 at 21:47

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