It is not news that the relationship between the community of invested Stack Overflow users and the company is at an all-time low. The core reason is arguably an unresolvable tension between their respective goals.
The site's original core mission was to provide a free and constantly-updated library of knowledge to the world.
While contributing to this library has always been fueled also by selfish motivations (earning reputation and showcasing one's talents for positive feedback, status among peers, and finding better employment, aka extrinsic motivation), continued engagement beyond answering questions - moderation, curation, commenting, helping askers improve and clarify their questions, and a host of other activities making the SO/SE sites livable places - is driven by a strong altruistic impulse (or "intrinsic" motivation).
Maintaining this free library built by altruism is ultimately incompatible with the company's current course, which is, perfectly understandably and legitimately, about revenue growth.
The first incompatibility is that there just isn't that much money in a healthy Q&A ecosystem. Trying to grow it beyond a healthy size, and extract more revenue from it than it can organically offer will destroy at least its heart and soul... if not ultimately imperil its very existence.
Secondly, to get people to provide non-trivial amounts of altruistic free labour, you need to be able to genuinely evoke a sense of purpose, enthusiasm, and trust in them. They need to believe that your decisions are guided by the mission's future rather than the business's. Basically, you need to be well-versed in running a charity rather than a business.
The company is demonstrably not interested in doing this and has driven away and fired most of the talent that could do this - but this will not work in the long term. You cannot run this place on your users' extrinsic motivation, their selfish impulses alone.
At this point, there's one obvious way forward:
the library that is SO and the other Q&A sites needs to become somewhat independent and decoupled from the company's growth goals in order to best support them - by serving as a sales funnel for the company's profitable products, and as a prestigious, genuinely philanthropic flagship held in high regard around the world and a resource that people are happy to contribute to.
This is in the best interest of the community and the future success of the company.
There is one bold move that would do this and fix community relations, make business sense, and set the path to a mutually beneficial future in one fell swoop:
Turn Public Q&A (SO and SE sites) into a nonprofit
The exact way to do this would of course depend on a huge number of factors, most of which we outside the company can't see. Here's one possible way to do it:
- Semi-independent from Stack Overflow the company: free to chart course on internal policy, but company retains strong veto and other rights in core decisions
- Self-funded through ads?, philanthropy, and user contributions (like Wikipedia-Style half-yearly $5 donation runs, etc.)
- The nonprofit would be getting the stackoverflow.com domain, or renting it from SO Hong Kong style, or whatever
The nonprofit would be acting as a sales funnel to SO, Inc. through ads?, nudging people into careers signups, integrating with Teams, etc.
Obviously, this aspect is a main motivator for SO, Inc. to agree to all this and would have to be written very strongly into the non-profit's DNA - there'd likely be some painful compromises involved for the community. (Arguably almost anything is better than the current situation, though.)
The nonprofit would be led by someone - and/or controlled by a board - who both the company and the community trust to represent their interests
On the technical end, the public Q&A sites would become Teams customers
Run by a skeleton crew of a leader, Community Managers, and controlled by a board, that includes company-/VC-provided members (as well as a community-elected one?)
- Retaining serious commitment to becoming a more friendly, inclusive place but also maintaining quality standards (a possible split into a beginners and an advanced SO should be very early on the new non-profit's agenda)
- Retaining The Loop and the other new measures to gauge community opinions beyond Meta, if deemed beneficial
- Renewing a commitment to true transparency in gathering and publishing feedback, moderating decisions, etc., that made the place exemplary far beyond its scope and subject matter
- Retaining the structure of a business with a strong leadership empowered to make decisions, rather than some form of democrary (but of course very much listening to the input of the community)
- Creating a new Meta reaching a much broader audience, possibly based on Discourse with its many features aimed at keeping discourse civil and constructive
- Possibly retaining the old Meta for specific, non-discussion tasks like bug reports and votes on clearly defined feature requests
- Retaining the Code of Conduct and giving the company a degree of control over it, if deemed necessary
- Individual SE Q&A sites can crowdfund development like getting custom site designs made (even by 3rd party contributors? Within limits set by the nonprofit leadership)
- SO staff might be able to work part-time for the nonprofit (at lower wages), or donate some of their free time, implementing features or designs, moderating the sites, formulating policy, etc.
The advantages to the community are obvious; but what's in it for SO, Inc.?
They'd get community relations and the droves of frustrated users out of management's hair allowing them to focus on their job
They'd truly regain the community's trust and get it back on board - at the current trajectory, tensions will only increase and have the potential to do huge damage to the company's brand and overall future. Yes, SO is huge at this point as to seem almost unsinkable, but is there really so much that sets it apart from other tech companies (other than its highly invested community)?
As it stands, day-to-day business on Stack Overflow works only through the goodwill of contributors who still haven't given up on the place yet (how they manage this, I will never fathom). But even their patience is going to run out eventually when they realize they and their interests do not matter to the powers that be.
They'd preserve their world-renowned flagship to showcase technical ability, develop and test features, and reach customers
They'd eliminate competition in the public Q&A space forever - there's no serious competition to Wikipedia, because what's the point in even trying? The niche is being adequately served so contributors have no reason to look elsewhere, and there is no profit potential to justify the investment for building an alternative. The same does not apply to Stack Overflow as long as its altruistic goals are in peril from VCs looking for a 10x exit.
They'd give those among SO staff who are (openly or secretly) highly frustrated a renewed sense of purpose, of contributing to something that serves a higher goal - a source of motivation and loyalty reaching beyond money and stock options
The way it is looking now, this is the only way to keep many important contributors on board in the long term.
Free contributions from usually highly paid professionals come at the price of providing a true sense of community and a trustworthy commitment to a higher goal. Under the current setup, Stack Overflow is providing neither.
This, while obviously a humongous undertaking, would be a bold move towards fixing these things. Compared to the course the place is on now, it is arguably the less risky option.