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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.

picture of a bulldozer amidst a field of dead and cut down trees

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.

picture of the great Library of Alexandria

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.

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    Related: Is It Time To Decentralize? – Mithical Feb 6 at 9:58
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    I'm all for this, but the non-profit would need a source of income. It may go against the grain, but why not join forces with an existing non-profit? There's a certain well-known encyclopedia-based foundation that seems to make about $20m more than it spends every year. – Bob says reinstate Monica Feb 6 at 10:32
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    If SO Inc wont do it someone else will. The main value in the Q&A space comes from the community. – aloisdg moving to codidact.com Feb 6 at 10:44
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    I could imagine the company doing that for the network sites, especially for those that don't target developers, but not for SO. SO is also the company brand, I doubt they'd ever give up that much control over the SO Q&A site. – Mad Scientist Feb 6 at 11:58
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    Not gonna happen, not anytime soon anyway. – Script47 Feb 6 at 13:04
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    @SEisevil problem: the second they do that, one could go and create a SO clone. At that point everyone could move to the clone.... and bring their content with them too since they are the creators (so they could probably even repost the same content verbatim). Won't happen, it would mean giving your "frenemy" the weapon they need to be independent. – BlueSoul Feb 6 at 13:41
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    SO doesn't seem unsinkable at all. Altavista, Myspace, and Friendster seemed huge and unsinkable once upon a time, and were much larger than SO will ever be. This is the internet. If someone develops a superior alternative, people might move and might do so faster than you can say "superfluous" backwards. – gerrit Feb 6 at 13:56
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    @BlueSoul that's not necessarily a problem. The web is full of Wikipedia clones. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Mirrors_and_forks The SE software itself has many clones, it's nothing that special. – Nemo Feb 6 at 15:23
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    @gerrit Or ... you end up like this: xkcd.com/927 ... with just more entropy .... – GhostCat Feb 6 at 15:30
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    Related: Is Stack Exchange in violation of New York labor law, in using volunteer moderators? and meta.stackexchange.com/a/338542/287826 and meta.stackexchange.com/q/334865/287826. Also I thought there was a @ghostcat question related to this but I can't find it. – aparente001 Feb 7 at 3:47
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    I support the basic idea, and am upvoting, although I think this would work better in a more broad-strokes approach, with a bit less detail. – aparente001 Feb 7 at 3:51
  • @Nemo - yep, there are many Wikipedia clones, but... how many of those got their software straight from Wikipedia??? One things is having clones, another is giving your clone your own software to use to compete with you. – BlueSoul Feb 7 at 8:30
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    Good idea. Thanks for writing it down. Still I expect a status-declined to appear soon. – Trilarion Feb 7 at 11:40
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    This feature-request should be featured. – jcsahnwaldt Reinstate Monica Feb 7 at 13:39
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    @BlueSoul all of them get their software from Wikipedia. Wikimedia is a free culture operation from top to bottom and develops MediaWiki under GPL. mediawiki.org/wiki/Wikipmediawiki – Nemo Feb 7 at 20:39
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I do like this proposal. There are details I would change, but overall I think it's a solid way to align Stack Overflow (the community) and Stack Overflow (the business) and ensure the success of both.

If I were writing a proposal for SE to adopt this, I'd probably include something like the following in my cover-letter:

To: The Board of Directors, Prashanth Chandrasekar.
Subject: Aligning Stack Overflow with Board goals

Thanks for taking the time to meet with me about aligning Stack Overflow with the boards goals. To quickly re-iterate what we talked about, you want to achieve the following:

  • Stack Overflow IPO/acquisition by mid-2021, with a floor of 350M, and success being determined as a 500M+ acquisition
  • Stack Overflow (the network) to be universally recognized as the best place to help technical workers get answers to their problems
  • Improve monthly active users by 10% year over year
  • Create a positive atmosphere, as judged by the Net Promoter Score being +50 after year one, and +70 by year three

Currently, you're in a rough spot. You've seen declining traffic year after year, user satisfaction is net-negative, and you've had to spend precious time focused on the community aspect, when for an IPO or acquisition, this is of much lesser relative importance.

You've taken steps to shut down public feedback channels so as not to exacerbate the negative NPS score, and you're continuing to tighten control over the community, in the hope that the cause of your negative NPS are your active users, and their documented 'unwelcoming' towards your site's visitors -- the people who are being surveyed and leaving these negative NPS ratings.

What you've found, however, is that it's not working. The negative feedback is continuing despite your best efforts, and while the budget of the Public Q&A portion has been cut, you find it's still a drain on your internal resources, and is keeping you from focusing on IPO/acquisition.

I believe I can help, and I believe there's a solution that allows you to focus on IPO, and will raise the reputation of your site and increase your Net Promoter Score.

Stack Overflow was uniquely started as a mission: To create a library of programming answers for professional and hobby programmers, and to contain all of the knowledge needed to solve their problems.

It is that mission that causes your active users to contribute, and it provides a "Why" that has far more potential to benefit your company than any other that has been mentioned.

However, you admit and are aware of your own limitations in this regard, but you need to retain the positive mission and passion associated with that mission to make this work. Ensuring all the programmer knowledge can be found requires a lot of volunteer effort, and volunteers are often at odds with business goals of acquisition or IPO.

In light of this reality, I submit that spinning the Stack Exchange off into a non-profit organization is a good way to achieve your goals and to lower the cost of trying to maintain Stack Overflow the Business and Stack Exchange the community network.

Here are the salient details:

  • You would own the majority of the seats for the non-profit organization, and you would grant them a perpetual license to the Stack Overflow Q & A software.
  • Board members for the non-profit would consist of: 3 employees of Stack Overflow, 1 from Engineering, 1 from Marketing, and 1 from Leadership and 2 members of the community, to be voted on by the community.
  • These board seats would pay a stipend (for employees) or a salary (for non-employees)
  • This board would be responsible for all strategic decisions for the Stack Exchange Community Network and would have a budget derived from Ad revenue.
  • Stack Overflow (the site) would be under board control, but Stack Overflow the business would retain strategic control over "Jobs" and "Talent" and be granted a perpetual license to host those on the Stack Overflow site.

This proposal would allow the community to retain its sense of investment and ownership in Stack Overflow's mission; while allowing Stack Overflow (the business) to focus on your core competencies: Teams and Talent. This would also have a positive reputational effect among the larger tech community and allow Stack Overflow to be shown as a charitable entity.

By engaging in a community governance model, the Stack Exchange board can be transparent in its aims and show that it is working with its existing community to improve those metrics that you hold as crucial to ensuring the success of Stack Overflow, while avoiding conflicts of interest that arise when a business decision conflicts with the mission.

As a note: the details of making Stack Exchange network a Non-profit or a Public Benefit Corporation (B-Corp) are inconsequential to this discussion -- either would have the same perceived effect.

Again, I thank you for taking the time to meet with me about this important topic, and I believe that together we can ensure a successful IPO or acquisition while protecting the reputation Stack Overflow has taken years to acquire as a trusted developer resource.

NB: What I wrote above is a fictional meeting; and all of the numbers therein are fiction. I have no knowledge (insider or otherwise) of any business dealings of Stack Overflow and their board.

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    My experience with this sort of letter is that it's helpful to take out the "you" as much as possible. With your permission I would like to edit most of them out. Example: "You would own the majority of the seats" --> SE would retain ownership of etc. – aparente001 Feb 8 at 1:42
  • @aparente001 since it’s a cover letter for a proposal, I’m purposefully writing it to the board of directors as if they were the audience and a person. The hope is to make it connect more emotionally with them. – George Stocker Feb 10 at 12:50
  • I don't think that stimulating an us against them feeling would be helpful. – aparente001 Feb 11 at 7:26
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+250

I've seen proposals of the sort, and there's a few things that I find need to be addressed

  • We've always done ok as long as folks remember the community matter

A critical issue is not just that commercial interests have overtaken community interests, but various actions seem short sighted and frankly the sort of reasoning where one carefully loads a pistol, aimed and shoots themself in the foot in order to kill a fly. This is in a wierd place where we don't trust the company enough to run everything, yet we want to rely on some of their resources and goodwill, and trust they won't decide to go one day "Oh, this decision is troublesome, we don't want to push it through" - even if its for the good of the community.

  • Without the company actually realising how much of a dumpsterfire many recent actions are, a "non profit" SE is basically going to be under the risk of someone going "this site is a problem it needs to go" unless we're completely independent. That will pretty much need a parallel management structure. Basically the board of governance for this org will be useless if it cannot question and overrule the companies decisions on certain key things. If we want SE to relinquish responsibility it needs to also not have overriding power.

  • SO has too much value for marketing as a brand that its unlikely to go fully independant, so this would end up being a way to cut the rest of the network loose at best

  • Most of the network mostly runs itself - except when folks meddle. And well, the people most qualified don't seem to be allowed to. Marketing decided when the rep change for question upvotes was made. Likewise, it seems Monica's removal was rammed through. The community team is closest to us and ought to be making those decisions.

  • Its not enough to create a non profit structure if we don't get support. Folks are likely to be more inclined to move away to alternatives, and that's a net drain of folks who get the Q&A system well

As a counterproposal

For this to work

  • Community needs to be its own branch of the company, a business unit so to speak, with a budget and independance
  • It needs to be insulated from politics. They need to be able to act with legal and marketing, not be under them.

  • It seems the end result of losing CMs is funds to hire more marketing folks, based off the jobs ads. There is a need to be able to attract and retain talent there, and to pay them for this to work.

We used to have a vice president of culture. We used to have a team of community managers whose remit was to grow the community (team chaos) and to keep things orderly. To me a significant part of the problem is about culture - that the culture that got SE so far is misunderstood and seen as problematic, and a lot of change is driven by folks who don't get it. SE's priorities have changed - in a sense for the worse. Many of us want things to work out - just not at the expense of the "public Q&A" network getting treated shoddily.

If you want to say the community matters - show investment. Put someone in who clearly gets community from inside the company to balance out things. Trying to deepen CM roles with fewer people has not worked, no matter what pretty words we here. Its something that needs more bodies, cause you can't develop your way out of dealing with people.

They're nice folks. Apparently a little too nice. They need support. If we don't unshackle and empower the CM team, we're likely to eventually destroy any value the community has.

Without finding a balance point, between the "old" SE culture of a community working together, and a top down marketing and legal driven decision making process (which feels like a significant part of the problem...), we're going to sink into the same quagmire of hostility and repeated mistakes.

If we can get this or an equivilent organisation funded under such a non profit - (and if we had a non profit, this should be its main goal) this might work. Otherwise its the same problems in a new package.

On the other hand, its worth remembering, a good chunk of the community that's outside and inside SO's the best marketing y'all have. Happy users will recommend the product. Unhappy ones - well there's a few clones, public or self hosted they can go for.

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This proposal, considered in broad strokes, is a win win. It gets rid of the army of annoying mosquitoes (constantly grousing at Meta.SE), it stems the flow of moderators quitting, it allows the company to focus on its top priorities.

The public networks are in principle an asset to the company, for a variety of reasons, including their use as a working demo of the what the company has to offer. However, many sites have been generating more headaches than income. The proposal here provides a way forward, allowing the company to focus on its top priorities and further its business goals.

Another answerer wrote, "These users that generate all these hits couldn't care less about any of these issues." Maybe so, but they do care about being able to find reliable information, not spam, and not nonsense. They care about the collection of Q-As being well organized. That is, tagging matters, and tagging takes months or years to learn to do well. Cleaning up messy, sometimes contradictory, duplicates -- that's important too.

In short, the Stack Exchange model is built upon a pyramid of busy bees keeping things tidy.

If standards are to be kept up, it's important to keep volunteer moderators, community volunteers and community managers happy and able to work productively, and with good morale.

Setting up a non-profit would, furthermore, ensure that federal and state labor laws in the United States are not violated. It would be far better to be proactive and start setting up a nonprofit, rather than waiting for labor law violation complaints to possibly be filed.

In short, the non-profit proposal, at least for the sites that have been generating more headaches than income, makes good business sense.

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Personally, I have no problem with a profit motive, and if SO can find a way to make money for providing a valuable service, more power to them.

I'm no fan of the rift created between SO and the participant base, as I think it's 100% unnecessary, but don't see how it's driven by the profit motive. There may be some in the company that think the issues that we're being driven apart over are crucial to their business model, but I don't see that at all. Remember, 99.99 percent of the SO users are people that type a question into their browser address line, and get a search engine hit to a valuable answer that makes their professional life easier. These users that generate all these hits couldn't care less about any of these issues. They care that they typed in a question and got a right answer right away. This is the backbone of the company. Anything that prevents users from getting that answer at SO is bad for the company -- and I think in the long run, some of the issues we've been upset over will do just that.

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    I don't think most of us have a problem with a profit motive per se, at all - but there's at least $70M in venture capital that are increasing pressure to see a 10x return. This is not a conspiracy theory. All the stuff that happened - the profound intransparency and stonewalling, the impossibility of admitting error, kicking out core people, putting a gag order on community managers and having all communication go through marketing... not directly profit driven but part of a massive culture change very much a result of the growth diktats from above, in my view – Pekka Feb 7 at 22:07
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    Anything that prevents users from getting that answer at SO is bad for the company I wish this were true; I bet the vast majority of us would be really happy to just go back answering and curating stuff and letting them do their job. But don't think Q&A is essential to the business anymore; it is just another business unit and arguably one of the more unimportant ones. George Stocker has been providing really good commentary and fairly sound-looking theories on this e.g. here and here. that's what the big upset is about really – Pekka Feb 7 at 22:09
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    One way how the profit motive is directly threatening core Q&A is that in their quest for new revenue streams, management will ramp up what they have already started: Prioritize attracting new users and questions (regardless of quality) over building a high quality knowledge base, and view Q&A exclusively as a sales funnel: practically forcing new users to sign up to feed the jobs database with candidates... hiding Q&A on the front page when not logged in... etc. etc. - hard to trust them to keep the balance long term and not suck the place dry when under pressure to perform tenfold or more. – Pekka Feb 7 at 22:23
  • @Pekka, stipulating that I don't understand SO for Teams, new users on the normal stacks don't make them money, and they'll probably never be short of good answers – Scott Seidman Feb 8 at 0:04
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    I think the logic is: new users = more eyeballs for ads, and potential developer candidates for the teams product, and the larger the pool the better. It does make sense at least in theory - developers are difficult to come by and can demand huge wages, flexible working arrangements, and benefits as a result. There is certainly enormous industry interest in talking to anybody that could possibly fill the spot... and whoever can reach all those people has a great future in front of them. And that's awesome but there is a real risk that high quality Q&A might fall by the wayside – Pekka Feb 8 at 13:10
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    I've been involved in solutions to this issue before, the problem is that I've only ever seen it approached from a position of profitability before community. SOI has always felt more like they are trying to find the profit in the community and framework, and the value of a lot of their products is less than anyone would really like. And you can't monetise a community other than it's value in dragging in traffic and pumping out adverts. They need an actual strategy not 'glorified FAQs and a whole heap of wisdom that is Creative Commons v3... v4 licensed. – Cyclical Feb 9 at 0:56

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