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Sara Chipps (our Director of Product, Community) just posted to our blog for The Loop: March 2020. The post gives some context behind some of the breakdowns in communication and interaction between the company and the Community that happened during the second half of 2019. It gives some insights into lessons learned, and some thoughts on moving forward. Please see the post for more details.

As Sara wrote:

We’ll be checking in with you to share how this is going and what we learn from it. We’re not stepping away from our work to make the site more welcoming, or making improvements to Stack Overflow. What we’ve learned is that in order to make it to a more welcoming community it’s important we support and have the support of the people that interact with us on Meta.

I am posting here to give a place for the Meta Community to discuss this blog post as we feel that discussion belongs here (and not in the comments of the blog).

The goal here is to be more open (and vulnerable) than we have been in the past relating to a tough subject, and in so doing try to move forward together. That said, we know that this is a painful subject for many, and we realize that Sara’s post here does not talk about every aspect of things that happened and every way that folks were affected.

We request that answers and comments be related to the subjects addressed by the blog post, and we thank you in advance for your respectful feedback.

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    @ResistanceIsFutile And yet it was linked in the blog post that was posted by Sara. I don't think it matters who on the team physically makes the post, as long as the direction came from the right people. – Sonic the Curiouser Hedgehog Mar 30 '20 at 14:59
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    "I’m personally looking forward to getting to know more of the users that frequent our Meta sites as we spend more time communicating with them." It is hard to believe such statement when person who wrote it, haven't decided to post here personally. – Resistance Is Futile Mar 30 '20 at 15:05
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    While Sonic makes a good point, Sara Chipps does have an account here, and has used it in the past. it would have been trivial for her to post this, or even have somebody post it for her, on that account. That she didn't is... not the greatest look. – FlappingAlong Mar 30 '20 at 16:23
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    @ResistanceIsFutile I can understand why she choose not to post here. She feels unwelcome and coming from her, this question would be at -50 score now, not +9 – Shadow Wizard is Vaccinating Mar 30 '20 at 16:26
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    Yaakov and I spoke this morning about who would be the best person to post the Meta post. My thoughts were that because of the decision made, and who it affected, it would be a bit before a post from me was well received here. I thought this post deserved eyes, so Yaakov would be the best to post. Plus he was a big part of what happened and how the decision was revisited. – Sara Chipps Mar 30 '20 at 16:48
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    I do sincerely hope we vote on content, not on people, and I would've upvoted this regardless of who posted it. But it might be a bit naive to think others would do the same. – Erik A Mar 30 '20 at 17:08
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    Frankly this reads like a classic non-apology apology. 'Mistakes were made. It was as a result of faulty intelligence. None of this could have been easily predicted by the people we were strenuously ignoring.' – Richard Mar 30 '20 at 20:09
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    @Sara thanks for the sincere reply, it means a lot, at least for me. – Shadow Wizard is Vaccinating Mar 30 '20 at 21:10
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    "That said, we know that this is a painful subject for many, and we realize that Sara’s post here does not talk about every aspect of things that happened and every way that folks were affected." - I really appreciate these kinds of acknowledgements. You don't have to talk about things you don't want to talk about. But acknowledging they exist, and that you're avoiding them, is really great, and helps build trust. – Steve Bennett Mar 30 '20 at 23:08
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    Still not a real apology. Yet ANOTHER chance SO had to improve the situation and hasn't. – danielbeard Mar 31 '20 at 21:57
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    It's interesting how the pandemic changes many things, at least for me. In 2019 I was following meta here daily or hourly and there were so many reasons to be upset about and to write about. Now I hardly come by weekly. As much as I felt about the topic, now I worry more about other things. Maybe, when it's all somewhat over I find more time to come back and see how StackOverflow evolved. I'm sure it will still exist. – Trilarion Apr 1 '20 at 8:14
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    While our Site Satisfaction Survey represents a more wide selection of user types (by getting a random sampling of...users on Stack Overflow) Why do y'all continue to think that "Stack Overflow users" are some sort of magically diverse group of Stack Exchange users? Most of my engagement with SO is reading the excerpt of the answer returned by my search engine. I don't even have to hit the site most of the time. People browsing SO are not a "wide selection of user types". They are one highly specialized segment of the community (and apparently the only segment that is truly valued). – ColleenV Apr 3 '20 at 18:51
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    @ColleenVpartedways: For years I argued for adding Stack Exchange to the annual survey for this very reason. It took a very long time to get the site satisfaction survey on Stack Overflow and my hope was it would be implemented on other sites. But I'm afraid SO is where the company has put its revenue hopes for years. (Why revenue should be a factor is a rant for another day.) – Jon Ericson Apr 3 '20 at 20:20
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    @JonEricson If revenue matters, they should only allow paying customers to take the survey ;) If someone can explain why that's not a good idea, but how only surveying users of only one site on the network is a good idea, I'd love to hear the reasoning. – ColleenV Apr 3 '20 at 20:44
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    So “the data” is the reason behind driving off and in one case libeling community members? This entire article is a strawman positing the real issue is “we stepped back from Meta because data” and not “we actively shat all over Meta and its residents because....” Not sure why but pretty sure it’s not data. – mxyzplk Apr 9 '20 at 3:02

16 Answers 16

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I've linked to this countless times over the past year, but clearly I need to do so again: Effective Apologies Include Six Elements – Association for Psychological Science – APS. The titular "six elements" are:

  1. Expression of regret
  2. Explanation of what went wrong
  3. Acknowledgment of responsibility
  4. Declaration of repentance
  5. Offer of repair
  6. Request for forgiveness

Of these, the most important is the one mentioned - but not utilized! - by this very blog post:

“[I]f someone can make only one statement in an apology, an Acknowledgement of Responsibility may serve the individual significantly better compared to all other components,” the researchers explain.

Taking responsibility means just that: the author making themselves responsible for the error and its resolution. Not making excuses, blaming others, or wistfully-passive "it would have been preferable..."s. And yes, to your point Yaakov: that does make one vulnerable: taking responsibility in such a situation means tying one's reputation to an error, and ultimately requires putting trust in one's audience to forgive and collaborate on the resolution. But if trust is desired, trust must be given.

For future reference, here's what that can look like: Why was BalusC temporarily suspended from SO?. I know full well how hard such things are to write and post, and I have a great deal of empathy for anyone faced with such a task... But if it needs to be done, it should be done well - so let's finally dispense with these half-measures going forward.

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    Imagine I walk into your apartment without taking my shoes off, and you express displeasure at this. Admitting that I am, in fact, wearing shoes is a start... But what else might you expect? – Shog9 Mar 30 '20 at 16:47
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    That was a great response, point taken. One piece of feedback we received is that there have been too many apologies but no action. Maybe one more would have been helpful, in this case. Thanks for the feedback. – Sara Chipps Mar 30 '20 at 16:49
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    I don't know whether or not more apologies are helpful at this point. Acknowledging responsibility is always helpful however. Some great examples of this playing out right now in our national politics... – Shog9 Mar 30 '20 at 16:52
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    I think Shog's point was that you'd not only want an "I'm sorry", but for him to actually take off the shoes, @Sara. – Mithical Mar 30 '20 at 16:56
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    Take off the shoes, and maybe also think about how I made that mistake in the first place. E.g., "I wrongly assumed that you were ok with mud ground into your carpet, next time I'll ask first." – Shog9 Mar 30 '20 at 16:59
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    I think if trust was where it used to be, @Sara, what you already said would have been enough. In this environment of distrust and bankrupted goodwill, it takes far more to earn that chance. As it stands, even the choice of who posted it is being questioned, and rightly so. – fbueckert Mar 30 '20 at 17:14
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    I suspect folks who get this wrong tend to look at apologies as a retributive action, vs reconciliatory. It isn't about doing penance, but rather rebuilding a damaged relationship. This is why I like examples involving individuals: it can be easier to picture this goal when it involves a neighbor or guest than "large amorphous group" - even though the principles are the same. – Shog9 Mar 30 '20 at 17:41
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    It would also help to explain, without any sort of mellowing or sugarcoating, why SE is not doing certain things. The company has its reasons, and we're guessing at them, but we don't know. That uncertainty is not working in SE's advantage, as people have been hurt and flock to the least favorable explaination for any unknowns. Not sugarcoating also shows the company respects us and considers us intelligent and compassionate enough to be able to handle the truth, again, uncertainty is not an advantage right now, people will substitute their worst fears for lack of an explaination. – mag Mar 30 '20 at 18:20
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    I think there's a bit more to it than "negative baseline", @Magisch. We just got done with Purim a few weeks ago, so consider that story: Haman was SUPER apologetic once he found out the queen was Jewish - but it didn't help him any. It was pretty obvious he was only apologizing because he found out that his victims had a lot more power than he had realized. Here, now that there are clear statistics on its importance, MSO is "the people the king delights to honor" - but what about all the folks who aren't represented by damning charts? Is it still OK to crap on the folks over on Math's meta? – Shog9 Mar 30 '20 at 18:37
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    I'm not pessimistic at all, @Magisch - I think there's every opportunity to "bridge that gap" here... I wouldn't bother posting here otherwise. But it won't happen accidentally. It takes intent and a willingness to do the hard work - even when folks are tired and the shortcuts look sooooo enticing. So, so much of this mess has been caused by folks being lazy, afraid, willing to cut corners - that's gotta stop, or there will be no hope. – Shog9 Mar 30 '20 at 18:44
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    @Mithical and immediately start cleaning up the mud he dragged in. If you've done harm, your top priority after preventing more harm (taking off the shoes) is to remedy the harm you can remedy. That's what I would do as a mud-spreading visitor, anyway. – Monica Cellio Mar 30 '20 at 22:19
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    I wanna make one thing clear here, @MonicaCellio: I don't hold Sara accountable for the messes last year. She played her part, but there were plenty of other folks with more history, more knowledge of the situation, and more positional power who either actively led the company down its disastrous path or stood by quietly when they could have spoken up. And they've all been conspicuously absent from these discussions over the past couple of months... The likely truth is, Sara can't clean up the mud - which makes any attempt to take responsibility futile. – Shog9 Mar 30 '20 at 23:12
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    @Shog9 I'm not singling her out either. There's been more than one person's worth of badness at SE HQ in the last year, and there are many people who could address their own parts in it, or not. Sara played a part but not the only part. I assumed the blog post was made on behalf of the company, not just one individual. And your last sentence is why I think focusing on repair is more important than focusing on assigning/accepting responsibility. Repair, not just leaving things unfixed and aspiring to do better next time. And with that I'll take my leave; trying to clarify not go on at length. – Monica Cellio Mar 30 '20 at 23:47
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    Heh, wasn't challenging your familiarity with these situations, @Monica - just making sure, for the folks reading, that intentions are clear. As I told Magisch, this isn't hopeless - but it's gonna take some real teamwork, and that starts at the top. – Shog9 Mar 30 '20 at 23:51
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    Repair can't happen if the people in charge, who either directed the mistakes or let them happen on their watch, don't also go through the process of apology and change. – curiousdannii Mar 30 '20 at 23:53
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From the post:

I heard feedback from a significant number of Stack Overflow employees that they avoided [posting] on Meta because of the reaction it garnered. Though this was not felt by all staff who interacted on Meta, and it affected different people to varying degrees, many felt discouraged or experienced full on anxiety at the thought of making a Meta post.

I also heard this feedback from Stack Overflow employees while I was working there. It is one of the reasons I wrote What does constructive criticism of a design change look like? This was at the time we were changing the design of every site on the network and collecting feedback. It was an exhausting exercise, but we did get actionable feedback from many different meta communities. Most of the criticism was constructive, but at that scale it doesn't take much to feel discouraged. So it was sobering to read Joe Friend's answer:

An occasional problem with comments and answers on meta is that they seem more interested in scoring points (actual and metaphorical). Instead of responding to the post, they speak to others who are equally upset about whatever product/UX change is being made. The result is that the commenter uses over the top language, denigrates the changes and or the people who made them, calls into question their abilities and shows general contempt for my team.

And I absolutely saw "general contempt" for the team working most closely on the product. This is not an imaginary problem Sara Chipps saw. Even veteran developers in the company were the target of this contempt. While working on ill-fated Documentation I saw criticism that crossed the line and made me despair working with the Stack Overflow meta community.

Now when faced with this reality, I saw it my duty as a community manager to bridge the cultural gap between employees and meta communities. It's hard work, but necessary. My approach was to write persuasive essays on meta sites and my blog while also offering coaching to employees interested in using meta. Despite setbacks, I believe this approach was making progress. I had the support of my managers and other people on the community team. I believe we had a shared understanding of the problem, if not specific solutions.

At the time I disagreed with the decision described in the blog post, but I followed it because I trusted the people who made it had a plan. My post on new and retiring badges was published on the blog and not on Meta Stack Exchange for that reason. And the initial response was encouraging. Meg Risdal and Julia Silge had done good work, but we worried the response would be negative and posting on the blog largely shielded them from disparaging remarks about their skills. It seemed like the model of filtering feedback through a community manager would work after all. (And to be clear: Julia and Meg are unafraid of meta.)

Unfortunately I have come to understand that the people making that decision did not have a plan. Instead, the decision represented an abdication of responsibility. It was a straight line decision to ignore 200-300 people in order to avoid doing the hard work of fixing a culture. Or rather, fixing two cultures because the company has long blamed the community for problems it itself created. It's eager to take credit for the incredible success of Stack Overflow (which is almost entirely due to good decisions by the founders and over a decade of hard work by members of the community) and equally eager to assign blame to others (including those same members of the community) for failures.

Listening to customers requires getting involved

If you've heard of the company Grab, it's likely because you read Steve Yegge's post about it.* One of my colleagues in the Philippines is quarantined in his house for his daughter's birthday. He got her a cake via Grab. That's the sort of thing that gives people a positive feeling about a company and it's just part of their business. I imagine they are one of the few economic bright spots in this crisis. (Though I do hope their drivers are staying safe.) What grabbed (pun intended) my attention about the company was something Steve said:

Grab has an unbelievable team. Unlike Google, who can’t be bothered to descend the ivory tower to visit real customers, Grab’s mantra is: “Go to the ground”. They constantly encourage every employee to get involved with actual Grab users as often as possible, so that as an organization they can be instantly aware of both customer needs and incoming market changes, and pivot quickly.

When I read that post, what immediately stuck with me was "can't be bothered to descend the ivory tower to visit real customers" and how it applied to the majority of Stack Overflow leadership. Do you want to know why Stack Overflow let three community managers leave in a single week? I'm not going to answer that question because I don't know for sure. But I will point out that the prime directive of community management is to understand the community.

My dream for Stack Overflow last year was that it would be a company where every employee was empowered to talk with their customers. Instead, the company redefined "customer" to exclude the people who:

  • create content that attracts page views for site ads,
  • need the services of a job listing service and
  • are the primary advocates for private Q&A.

I know. I'm as baffled as you are. Last year was also the first time in my life that I was afraid to say something in public because of legal advice. We were strictly ordered not to talk with Monica Cellio, who was perhaps the most influential member of the meta community. It's hard to imagine my dream failing in a more spectacular way.

How to know if the company's culture has changed

I want to quote another line from the blog post:

3,202 survey respondents answered the open-ended question [“What do you find most frustrating or unappealing about using Stack Overflow?”], we randomly selected 350 of those responses to code.

What you need to understand is that the "The Loop" was an ill-considered idea that was pushed into production to fit an artificial deadline against the advice of people who know how to design surveys. There was no plan to provide appropriate resources for analysis once responses were collected. This is, no doubt, why only 1 in 10 answers to the question were coded. So this announcement scares me. People I care about who still work at the company are going to be asked to reengage with meta after an entire year wasted in failing to understand the culture of Stack Exchange.

So here's what I'm looking for: more resources invested in community. I don't mean blog posts or surveys or meetings or consultants. I mean people who know what they are doing being given freedom to work for the community without interference. If there is hiring in the next few months, I hope it won't be filling up the ivory tower. I'm looking for more community managers and more people dedicated to improving the public Q&A product.


* In February, I had the pleasure of traveling to the Philippines and I took a Grab (like you might take an Uber or a Lyft) from the airport to the hotel. It was a great service and I was eager to tip my driver. Only when I entered the amount in my expense report did I discover that my "generous" tip worked out to 30 cents.

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    The situation with Monica still baffles me to an extent I will likely never quite grasp. There were so many cheap opportunities to save face for everyone involved, so many ways this could have ended without the massive collateral damage. Every step of the way I thought "surely they're not actually going to do something so self defeating" right before they did it. It felt like living in the twilight zone. Adding insult to injury we had to put up our own money to at last give her a fighting chance against ... this. I don't know, it was wild. – mag Mar 30 '20 at 18:52
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    Don't get me wrong, I don't regret a single cent spent on it, but the idea that I'd feel morally compelled to crowdfund a defamation lawsuit against a company I was praising to anyone who would bring up the topic just half a year previously... – mag Mar 30 '20 at 18:55
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    @Magisch: I don't know how that happened, but the post does point out: "However, once you view people as numbers on paper . . . it’s easy to lose perspective and underestimate the impact individuals and smaller groups can have on the whole." Whenever I think of the opportunities you mention, I get a jolt of anger. I don't expect that to change anytime soon. But as I move toward a community I don't yet understand, I can see how people fall into the trap of deliberately ignoring feedback. – Jon Ericson Mar 30 '20 at 19:01
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    Brilliantly said, @Magish. I felt much the same. Even more wild was that I felt moved to contribute to a crowdfunding campaign for someone I'd never even heard of a month earlier. But it was like the company, to borrow a phrase from Dan Savage, kept slamming its hand down on the self-destruct button. Maybe one day someone high up will write a tell-all book that explains just what the hell actually happened and why. – Steve Bennett Mar 30 '20 at 23:35
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    The internal politics around meta are (or were) to be feared more than meta itself IMO. Like Sara says in her post "it’s a discussion that has continued nearly daily over the past six months." I personally found it very exhausting and I am generally on the "pro meta" side. I'm optimistic that this along with other encouraging action lately is truly borne out of an underlying positive shift... I'm sure this was uhh not an easy blog post to write, though. Hopefully the next update is a fun data science or research post. :) – Meg Risdal Mar 31 '20 at 3:34
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    @MegRisdal: You know how we settled on Trello for project management because it was the least terrible tool people could agree on? That's sorta how meta has worked for CMs. What worried me last fall was the push toward getting away from meta without having a viable alternative lined up. I can only be optimistic about the situation as long as I have that point of reference. – Jon Ericson Mar 31 '20 at 5:58
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    @Magisch - I think the problem was that a) The decision to demod Monica came from high up the chain of command and everyone below was scared of apologising on their behalf and b) The general feeling seems to be that they shouldn't need to really apologise to a bigot. Everything that came afterwards reflects that thinking, right up to the point that they were eventually forced to recant by legal means. There's no good evidence that any of the underlying thinking has changed. They're sorry it caused a fuss, not sorry they did it. – Richard Apr 1 '20 at 9:47
  • "At the time I disagreed with the decision described in the blog post" This is referring to the decision to stop making announcements on meta, correct? An edit might make that more clear. – Stevoisiak Apr 3 '20 at 21:13
  • @Stevoisiak: Yes, I think you're right, given the following sentence being about announcing something on the blog instead of on MSE. – V2Blast Apr 3 '20 at 23:08
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    Regarding reception on meta, it seems that many of the infant gods fail (seemingly deliberately) to understand the voting system here and interpret disagreement as personal attack. This is understandable for general users, but not for SE employees, and it pattern-matches with general passive-aggressive behavior. – chrylis -cautiouslyoptimistic- Apr 4 '20 at 5:07
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So.... first thoughts.

This reads like it was intended to be an apology of sorts — that corp, after realizing that they were acting with bad or incomplete data and took actions that, well, caused the biggest hullabaloo on the network to date, are now trying to fix some of that damage.

It's... a start.

It includes taking responsibility for some of the things that were done, admitting that mistakes were made, and expresses interest in rebuilding. Which is all well and good. But we're still left with a couple problems.

First off, how did this situation even get to this state in the first place? How is it that the people with experience, who told you that there was something wrong with the data you were working with, got summarily ignored?

I made the tough call to stop asking employees to make announcements there and to pull back from the platform a bit. There were a bunch of people internally that thought this was a bad decision, and that we were abandoning some of our most valued community members. It’s a discussion that has continued nearly daily over the past six months. In hindsight, it would have been preferable to reach consensus through more research earlier, given that many people in the company (and community) care deeply about these issues, it was a discussion that was front of mind.

That paragraph there tells me, reading between the lines, that it was largely the old-school devs and the Community Managers who stepped up to say that Meta was more important than you thought at the time. I could be wrong, but that's the impression I get.

So why is it, and how is it that decisions about the community were made ignoring the advice of the Community Managers — the people hired to deal specifically with these people and who know how the sites function on a practical level? Do they have no voice within the company?

Anyway... the situation developed. The CMs were again ignored and prevented from acting in the way they deemed best — not digging right now, but there are several posts here on MSE that lay things extremely bare about this.

And then two of them were fired.
Because of actions taken by those above them in the company.
Who acted against the CMs' advice.
And are now discovering that the CMs were right all along.

We have a pickle now. Sure, you've realized you've made mistakes and you want to put it behind us. But there's some permanent fallout from these mistakes that's going to made it very hard to move forwards.

The CM team was understaffed when it was at fourteen people. It's certainly not any better now.

The company removed some of the people that we, the community, most trusted — like Shog. That's permanent. Those CMs are out of the company for good. And that's a real stumbling block that's currently getting in our way for rebuilding.


Trust takes a long time to build, but can be destroyed in an instant. The trust built up over the past eleven years? Poof. Gone. You now have to start over from scratch, and that's going to take a very long time.

Yaakov has been an אלוף (champion) in community-rebuilding efforts. But trust isn't earned back overnight, or in a month, or even in a year. It's going to be a long slog until trust is anywhere near the old levels — especially if the CM team remains in the state it is, and until the root causes of the issues are addressed.

I may sound cynical, or sour, or grumpy, or whatever. But this is my honest feedback and thoughts upon reading this, so... make of it what you will.

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    Very, very well put. The fact that the people with actual experience in interfacing with the community were outright ignored, and then even more so when two of the most experienced and trusted CMs were fired, is the real root of the problem. The directorate needs to take a long, hard look at what failures happened that resulted in that decision being made, and work to correct them (which, to their genuine credit, they have been working towards) – FlappingAlong Mar 30 '20 at 15:36
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    It's not even just about trust. The CMs that have been fired would likely have been amog the people most equipped to avoid and, now that that didn't work, repair the situation. So not only is it a soft loss for community trust, it's also a hard loss for company skills/experience, especially when they suddenly try to reorient their perspective now (if they do). – Christian Rau Mar 30 '20 at 15:45
  • Agreed on Yaakov's excellent community building. I always look forward to reading his posts. – Stevoisiak Apr 3 '20 at 21:16
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I read the blog, and I came away feeling...somewhat off. I couldn't really put my finger on it for a couple days. After I've had time to chew on it, I realized something.

It's an expectation that we should just move on from the hurt. That the data was gathered in good faith, and that, while it was a mistake, it wasn't meant to be malicious.

Perhaps it wasn't meant to be. But it certainly felt like it was. Starting with the Welcome Wagon, there was so much feedback provided you couldn't swing a cat without hitting some really well written arguments that how it misunderstood the problem, that leadership, of all people, had lost touch with the very people that built and maintained the site. It didn't help that the very start of this kickoff made the implication that curators were mean by just trying to maintain quality standards.

One of those arguments challenged the false dichotomy statement, and Nick responded with, and I quote, "This idea is total garbage". It was later softened to, "completely wrong", but the implication held; Meta was Mean, and now SE had to Do Something to fix it.

And Do Something they did. Monica summed it up very well, but the perspective was clear: We Were The Problem.

So curators were not only ignored, but were actively seen as the problem to be fixed. Moderators were threatened, publicly, when an attempt was made to properly explain the disconnect. I understand that an apology was made in private regarding that, but that just highlights the problem; it reinforced the fact that the company saw us as the problem to be solved. No public apology was made for that debacle.

I could go on, listing example after example after example where curators were maligned, ignored, and all of it justified by, "data". 0.015%, anybody? Easy to do when you you're the only ones with access to it. All pleas for at least some communication and idea for direction have gone unanswered. Curators have been open to helping with changes, and just wanting some idea, any idea of where SE wanted to go.

SE hasn't just let the bridge between them and their communities fall into disrepair, they've actively mined it and blew it up, thinking they didn't need their communities to maintain the sites. Yes, I know it's never been said, but the implication has only been reinforced by this attempt at a mea culpa. Now that data shows what the community has been saying from the start, it's all, "a misunderstanding". "We moved forward in good faith".

Bridge building happens from both sides, and the community's been working constantly to repair the bridge. But we've been dropping like flies, losing faith in SE. I hung up my mod hammer at the end of last year, after the completely robotic statement to Monica about how, "you regret there was hurt". I was active daily, not only on my site, but here and MSO as well.

This blog post rings hollow. Like...really hollow. I kept expecting a sincere apology, and when I got to the end, I still didn't see one. Even here, I still don't see a sincere apology. People are having to explain to the Director of Public Q&A how to interact with the community. How to take responsibility and show sincerity. I'm explaining this, and, to be honest, I'm pretty bad at interpersonal interactions online. Apologies are a start to healing the hurt, a start to reconciliation. I'm not interested in grinding it into faces. I just want one, made sincerely. I see a lot of dodging, but...still no apology.

I might be misunderstanding the blog. But I still don't feel valued. I don't have to justify it, because when someone tells you how they feel, you can pack up your magnifying glass and clue kit, cuz that’s the answer. You’re done.

And I'm done. I'm done trying to repair the bridge. I tried and tried and tried. I'm tired of trying. This is something SE actively destroyed, and, well, I guess they win. I'm the bad guy. I'm the problem. If SE wants to rebuild the bridge, awesome. About time. But I'm not going to help in that. If the company makes it over the gap, maybe I'll pick up my hammer again. I want to hold out hope it can. But one step away from putting down the hammer is walking away. I don't want to; I love the community I've helped build, the friendships I've made, the people I've gone to see, in person. Those are roots I want to keep.

So I'll be waiting.

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    I can sum it up with "SE fell victim to the false Data God". – Shadow Wizard is Vaccinating Apr 2 '20 at 16:34
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    @ShadowWizardisEarForYou nope: they fell victim to bunker mentality and exceptionally bad management – Sklivvz Apr 2 '20 at 17:07
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    I wanna call out one bit here: "I'm explaining this, and, to be honest, I'm pretty bad at interpersonal interactions online." I've watched you for a long time, and... Yeah, you wouldn't top my "preternaturally good at people" list. But: you've gotten better over time. A lot better. By listening, accepting criticism, becoming aware of the limitations of your own experience before the vast breadth that exists across these sites. I've seen that in a lot of folks here, including myself: this isn't just a place for the smartest, cleverest, nicest... It's a place that helps the rest of us be better. – Shog9 Apr 2 '20 at 17:15
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    @ShadowWizardisEarForYou The whole "but the data said..." thing is just a textbook example of motivated reasoning. They knew the conclusion they wanted to reach, and when one data point appeared at first glance to fit it, they clung to that ignoring all other data, all experience, all advice, and all reason, until circumstances (Teresa joining at the level she is plus Yaakov's endless reasonableness and patience?) forced them to consider other possibilities. – user56reinstatemonica8 Apr 3 '20 at 12:32
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The thing that strikes me the most about Sara's message is that there's no clear "I was wrong" statement. Sure, there's hints of this ("In hindsight, it would have been preferable to reach consensus through more research earlier[...]"), but nowhere in the blog post can we read in clear words that she did make a huge mistake.

When public figures (the good ones) make the wrong call, it’s admirable when they admit it publicly and share what they are doing to right the wrongs.

Then please do. Every "we messed up" messages we have read so far were always posted by other staff members, but never from Sara. If you find it admirable when people admit they were wrong, now is the time to make an admirable move and post about the mistakes you personally made in the last few months, and how those mistakes and their implications will be used in the future to be better at your job.

The posts by Teresa and the interactions we had with the other staff members felt more genuine that this blog post, at least in my opinion. The message felt more ... raw, more like "here's a mistake we made, and here's how we intend to fix it". This blog post feels more like an embellishment campaign that it trying to move the dust under the carpet and act as if nothing ever happened.


Edit

You mentioned as a comment the following:

Yaakov and I spoke this morning about who would be the best person to post the Meta post. My thoughts were that because of the decision made, and who it affected, it would be a bit before a post from me was well received here

I think you would find your time on Meta.SE significantly more pleasant if you did indeed owned up to your mistakes here. During the Monica events, we saw your interview on that other site, some comments here and there, and some blog posts, but never posts on Meta.SE. Well, excluding the agreement post and an answer to the moderator's use of the featured tag.

It feels very much like you don't want to have anything to do with the community, while blogging about how much the community is important. Yaakov's post are well received in part because he's interacting with us on a constant basis. I will be honest here, maybe your first messages here won't receive many upvotes because people are resentful of what happened in the last year. Maybe. But if you admit your faults, lay out a plan to learn from them, and start being part of the community, and not only talking about the community, then people will eventually come around and respond positively to your messages.

Everyone can make mistakes, but it's what you do after that determines what type of person you are.

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    That's helpful feedback, thank you. Will take into account in the future and get inspiration from posts like Teresa's. – Sara Chipps Mar 30 '20 at 16:46
  • @SaraChipps Sure, if it does help, then I'm glad. I edited my answer after a comment you poster on Yaakov's question, it might interest you. – Laf Mar 30 '20 at 18:30
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    I've noticed that there's a strong tendency with SE's community foul-up to say things like "Mistakes were made". That's usually a sign that the person who made the mistake is more senior than the person apologising otherwise they'd say "Person X made a mistake" – Richard Mar 30 '20 at 19:22
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    I'm looking for apologies from the CEO as well. This happened on his watch. – curiousdannii Mar 30 '20 at 23:22
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    @SaraChipps you say that a lot, how about actually properly apologizing? or making other decisions that go against the best interests of our users I haven't seen a single decision that was in the best interests of users. – danielbeard Mar 31 '20 at 21:51
  • The "SE community" and "the people on meta" are not the same thing. The community means all users using any of the sites. Most of which never even visit meta. – tkruse Apr 6 '20 at 23:33
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First of all, I am very mindful of Sara Chipps' excellent and insightful blog post about the effect of multiple people giving negative feedback, even politely and constructively. With that in mind, I want to start by thanking her for being brave enough to actively watch this post and respond to the answers and comments. Thank you, Sara, I can imagine how hard that must be.

With that said, I will now give my own negative, but I hope constructive, criticism, and I apologize in advance if it ends up feeling like a pile-on.

When I started reading it, the first thing that struck me is that it was talking about "leaders". It took me quite a while to understand that the "leader" in question was a manager of some private company (SE Inc). I was expecting the post to go on and discuss the position so many world leaders find themselves in where they need to make decisions affecting the lives of milions. Especially now. I just don't think of a manager in a company as a leader and the author calling herself that just came across as self-aggrandizing. I'll freely grant that might just be me though.

However, this impression was further compounded when the author referred to herself as a "public figure". Once again, this made me think of political leaders and the like. I really have trouble thinking of someone in a managerial position of some company as a "public figure". A government minister is a public figure. The head of a public agency is a public figure. The director of product in a relatively small private company is not.

So for me, this put the tone of the whole thing more towards "I'm important and have a tough job" and less towards "I screwed up".

On that point, as others have mentioned, the post seemed to be leading up to an apology, but I got to the end and found none. Nowhere did it say "I'm sorry", or even "I screwed up" or any sort of admission of fault. There was admission of mistakes having been made (thank you for that), but no admission of fault to be seen. In fact, it felt like yet another statement which is being presented as an apology while not actually being one at all. It even goes as far as making the point about how it is admirable when "public figures" admit they were wrong, but still never actually does so, as Bryan's answer sums up nicely.

Taken together, these two points made the post feel like something written to make the author feel better, highlight their own importance and how hard their job is, so we should cut them some slack. Which may well be fair, Sara Chipps has absolutely gotten way more flak than anyone deserves, but that isn't an apology.

Now, just to be clear, I don't for a second think that Ms Chipps' objective with this post was to pat herself on the back. I'm sure it was intended as an apology. Sadly, the choice of words, the two paragraphs dedicated to "leaders" and the absence of an actual apology or even admission of fault (an admission of error is not the same as an admission of fault), made it come across very differently to what I imagine was intended.

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    Yep, your last couple paragraphs is what I had in mind, too. Eating crow is tough, and it's all too easy to continue defending yourself in public when you've already admitted a mistake to yourself internally, while forgetting you haven't fully admitted it to the rest of the audience. – Bryan Krause Mar 30 '20 at 19:20
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    I wonder if there is some silicon valley culture thing, where you never "screw up", you just "make decisions, then collect data and iterate". She's acknowledging that in the end, it was a bad decision, but it was made in good faith and on the basis of the evidence they had at the time. The phrase "improve our position" (intended to mean "make positive changes") really stands out as a kind of jargon you never hear in the real world. – Steve Bennett Mar 30 '20 at 23:40
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    I don't think it's (limited to) SV, @Steve. I hate to say it, but... There's a class aspect to it, a level where you're allowed to screw up royally and not only not admit to it, but also not learn from it. ICs make mistakes; management makes sub-optimal decisions based on incomplete or erroneous information. A former colleague pointed me to a series of essays a while back that helped me to make sense of all this; this one is particularly relevant. – Shog9 Mar 31 '20 at 0:22
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    @Shog9 IC? we're stuck figuring that one out ... – DavidPostill Mar 31 '20 at 12:00
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    Individual contributor, @david - aka leaf nodes aka grunts like me 😁 – Shog9 Mar 31 '20 at 13:15
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    I'm not a big meta contributor or reader. But while reading the blog post I could not help immediately noticing the points you note above. It really read as an exercise in ego-boosting. Real leaders don't need to do that. The post was completely tone deaf. – Jon Custer Mar 31 '20 at 16:18
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    As a young woman engineer back in the days of yore, I worried about making unforced errors because then my colleagues might not take me seriously. The hardest lesson I've learned is that saying "I screwed up, I'm sorry, and I'll make it right" without excuses earns respect. Excuses looked weak and showed a lack of confidence. Making amends is important. "It won't happen again" is not good enough. Trying to push forward without making amends, however small they might be, was always perceived as me being insincere about owning my mistake. I see a lot of "leaders" get caught in that trap. – ColleenV Apr 3 '20 at 19:49
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I'm disappointed that the blog entry didn't really address the breakdown in communication that you indicated. Sara's entry says "I made the tough call to stop asking employees to make announcements there and to pull back from the platform a bit.", but doesn't go into why or how communications got so bad. What I saw wasn't really a pullback by staff, but rather a change of mood or tone - that instead of either continuing as normal or pulling back from the platform, staff instead made posts full of anti-social corporate-speak, legalese, and weasel words rather than language that builds trust and engages the community.

Could we get some understanding of that aspect? Did you put the legal department in charge of Meta relations in 2019? Were you getting your Meta posts pre-vetted by your attorneys? Was the change in tone due not to legal issues per se, but low morale and/or high pressure on your staff?

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    This is an excellent question (or set of questions, technically). Though I do think that the change in mood/tone was not mutually exclusive with "pulling back from the platform" - both of those things seemed to happen. – V2Blast Apr 3 '20 at 23:13
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I think it is worth thinking about the organization of a written work when considering what the writer intends to make the reader think. Everything starts from the beginning.

The first paragraph in this post says: leadership is hard. It asks the reader to sympathize with people in leadership positions. This frames the post as about the writer rather than the target of any apology.

Then, "I made the tough call" comes 6 paragraphs before "wrong call", and in talking about "wrong call" it's again about "public figures" and a need for admiration of those public figures.

The post seems to be asking a reader to sympathize with the decision maker, rather than simply doing the thing it says is admirable.

If I were writing a post to take responsibility, I would instead organize it something like:

  1. I made a mistake/error in judgment

  2. My mistake was _______

  3. This is the thinking that led to the mistake. Include this not to justify the error, but to make clear that the thought process has been reviewed, to help build confidence that it can be avoided in the future

  4. This is how I came to realize I made a mistake

  5. This is what is being done differently now and in the future

I thought the last paragraph (beginning "I’m grateful...") was excellent, especially for giving credit to the people who were giving feedback all along that this was a poor decision. I think the content describing the internal process and path to rethinking the decision was good. I think the initial framing makes the messaging feel a bit off, by starting with self-congratulatory language rather than vulnerability.

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When public figures (the good ones) make the wrong call, it’s admirable when they admit it publicly and share what they are doing to right the wrongs.

I am still waiting for that to happen. Wrongs haven't been admitted nor rectified.

"I’m personally looking forward to getting to know more of the users that frequent our Meta sites as we spend more time communicating with them."

I am still waiting for that to happen, too. It is hard to believe such statement when person who wrote it, haven't decided to post here personally.

I’m grateful that people followed their guts here and challenged our assumptions.

Agreed. Huge thanks to Yaakov Ellis.


This blog post would be good starting point. It would be more than good, if Meta users were just ignored.

That is not what happened here. We were not just ignored. We as community and some people in particular have been brutally and personally attacked.

It is hard to move forward after such events. Wounds run deep and trust has been lost. The only actions that could help healing faster never happened.

Only now, after the fact, when it became obvious that Meta users are significant, there has been change of course. But after all that happened just wanting to interact and gather feedback is not enough to bring back lost trust.

There are no words that can fix broken trust, only actions can.

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While the important parts have been covered - Mith's done a good job with talking about what you lost over time with respect to the people specialized in actually dealing with the community. Shog and Jon's advice is worth their weight in gold, and now that I got some sleep and coffee, I have a solid base to build off of.

And while Yaakov wrote the 'question' - I suspect this is more for pretty much everyone who has to deal with the community

I'd say that if anyone told you meta and dealing with a community was easy... they lie. That said, working with folks is an acquirable skill, as is posting effectively on meta.

I think there's two critical lessons that every community leader, or leader of any sort.

Firstly - that any community will treat you as they treat them

If you call a community toxic - one will find the toxic ones stay, and a lot of good folks leave. Get to know them, and talk about specific issues, and you often find the ones who're the most passionate pains in the rear are also often the folks who might be the most helpful.

There's still a few remnants of this in some of the company's messaging and it kind of often stings.

Secondly - fear is always the worst way to approach something. Things are scarier when you expect something to jump you in the dark. It gets worse when the default approach is "get them before they get me". Yeah, there's some less nice people out there, but you find, on the whole most people just want the community to be (their vision of?) healthy.

It is not enough to complain something is broken, or to try to put aside part of the community cause you don't understand them. People appreciate effort.

A book series I'm rather fond of has the motto "Sic Transit Gloria Mundi" - All earthly glory is transient. The same is true of being in power and authority. The seat, crown or title can pass on - what people think of you can be changed, but its yours. Consider the weight the words some of your fellow colleagues have. As with many things worth doing, this is hard, and can't be rushed, but can be done. And what you say to people and how you say it has power - and the fact that you do it and take ownership of it even if it blows up in your face.

I suppose being a moderator puts me in some small position of power, but frankly, while the tools are nice - the real power comes with the folks around you. Especially the ones who're willing to tell you you're wrong .

I'm not fearless either. I hope these words get taken the right way, and that more than one person reads this, and maybe has a moment of understanding. I'm also afraid that folks might feel that this is aimed at one person - and frankly, its a series of failings of a system even if its one person making the decision.

Mistakes were made - with meta, with how folks were seen, and treated and how the broader network was treated. There's a few lasting sore points that apologies are probably not likely to fix - folks personally hurt, some of the fallout of some decisions, that's going to need humility (of the big person sort) to try to make decisions to fix - properly the mistakes of the past. That might help - done right.

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    as an aside. This took me long enough, over the day to trigger a "are you a human" message – Journeyman Geek Mar 31 '20 at 7:54
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    "No, I'm not human, I'm a dog! Stop asking me!" – Mithical Mar 31 '20 at 8:02
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    I admire your consistent focus on constructive ways to rebuild community relationship. You are the definition of constructive criticism. – Stevoisiak Apr 3 '20 at 21:36
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I agree with the other answers, regarding "leadership", and meaningful ways of taking responsibility. And kudos for having the guts to write that down, and open yourself up for feedback of any sort.

Beyond that, what I find refreshing:

Several people across different teams felt that those numbers didn’t match their experience with meta and community interactions. Yaakov Ellis ... took the initiative to do a deeper dive into the data and discovered that we were operating under false assumptions after all. Digging into it, while there are about 200-300 Meta users that are responsible for most of the posts, the vast majority of our curators (the folks that edit and flag posts and perform reviews) are avid readers of our Meta sites. ... All of these things together made it obvious it was time to revisit my decision around how we interact with our Meta sites.

Please allow me a short moment of "well, we told you so".

On the other hand: I very much appreciate that Sara wrote exactly that sentence down, and that they followed suit by

  • getting that message, publicly, on the blog and
  • putting up this question on MSE, to give the community a chance to give feedback

I’m grateful that people followed their guts here and challenged our assumptions. If they hadn’t, we might still be in the same place, or making other decisions that go against the best interests of our users.

Hear hear.

My quick summary: it is really good to know that both side now share one common understanding regarding: MSE, MSO, the users in those communities have "decisive" influence on the "main" communities!

When the company seriously interacts with "us", that is "good" for the company. To a degree that affects their long term business results.told you so

Finally: a very neat idea to directly link from the blog post to the question here. This approach of pointing "back" to MSE might send people here who never noticed this place before. Making this place stronger, which as outlined, will help the company!

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    Somehow I'm not really happy with the data driven turn. Who knows, maybe some weeks in the future somebody else digs even deeper and discovers that meta isn't so important after all. How much trust can be set in data driven approaches if they say one thing on one day and another thing at another day. – Trilarion Apr 3 '20 at 18:39
  • The other approach of hope and arguments and well intended suggestions, that didn't work out either, did it? "Data" is what got them to listen. That is more than what we achieved throughout the last 12 or 18 months.... Or do you disagree with that? – GhostCat Apr 3 '20 at 18:59
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    It seems like it but then we should keep our fingers crossed that the data doesn't change its mind again. As I understand it, lots of curators visit meta at least once in a month. Maybe this apparent interaction is not so meaningful or powerful as we think? The first data saying that there are only a few active people on meta is still true I think. What seems to have changed most is the interpretation of the influence of meta. – Trilarion Apr 3 '20 at 19:47
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    Data is useful in terms of helping you to accomplish a goal. Data is... Not as useful in telling you what your goals are. Using data to set your goals is a great way to hide your intent, but a bad way to pick useful goals. If you are tasked to go to Chicago, data telling you that Piscataway is closer does not help you.. Unless your actual goal was to go to Piscataway. One must fix in their minds their goals, first, and then seek data to enable realizing these goals... Anything else is doomed. – Shog9 Apr 4 '20 at 0:33
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To be honest, for me this blogs post didn't help to regain trust in SE, it actually made me trust SE a tiny bit less. The tone of the post feels off to me, some fragments seem weirdly self-congratulatory. It doesn't help that this post is part of a series of apologies where many fell short or were entirely non-apologies.

The positive part of this specific story is Yaakov pushing hard enough to actually get the data that pointed out the flaws in the previous assessment of meta. That some of the employees that truly care about the community manage to get their voices heard is one of the more encouraging signs recently. But you also fired or caused the resignation of at least 3 CMs that were some of the most visible advocates for the community.

Putting this reversal on the new data also feels like trying to shift the blame away from people. It's no longer "I made a mistake", but "We didn't have the right data back then".

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    I'm glad I'm not the only one picking up the self-congratulatory vibes when she says how admirable it is when leaders admit their faults (implying they actually did that). – Christian Rau Apr 3 '20 at 23:43
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I heard feedback from a significant number of Stack Overflow employees that they avoided on Meta because of the reaction it garnered. Though this was not felt by all staff who interacted on Meta, and it affected different people to varying degrees, many felt discouraged or experienced full on anxiety at the thought of making a Meta post.

That is not surprising.

Anyone in any industry unpreparedly working directly with customers giving feedback might be shocked at getting negative feedback. It can make people feel bad emotionally, and change their perspective on themselves.

But that's the job. When you work in a hospital, you might see blood at work. When you work on a farm, you might see animals die. When you work as a lawyer, you might have to listen to confessions of rapists and then have to try your best to keep them out of jail.

Working with a community implies these communications which can be harsh. Unless SE only hires people with plenty of experience in communicating with customers and getting feedback, SE needs to train their employees to cope with the different kinds of feedback that can happen.

Not everyone is naturally good at talking to customers or listening to complaints. Most people don't learn that at school.

Give people communication trainings. Give them support, like someone they can talk to about negative feedback they received. Give them templates for how to write posts. Train them in seeing the situation from the perspective of the user. Teach them that negativity in meta derives from passion for the platform.

If someone works at SE in a position where they should be following Meta, but they don't because it makes them feel bad, then either they need more training, or they are the wrong person for the job. Not everyone can work as a nurse, a farmer or a lawyer either, there is no shame in that.

Any negativity in meta is a natural consequence of the imbalance of power. Users here are not part of the decision making of a platform they love. They are victim to any decision by SE making their life harder. They usually don't even get to understand the reasons behind decisions, and blog posts typically look like fabricated excuses rather than the true motivations. Of course not all negativity is justified that way, but some negativity will always happen as long as decisions about this site are made behind closed doors.

Much negativity would disappear once decisions are made in the open, and that does not mean a pretty blog post every month in euphemized business jargon, but actually making meetings public. The meeting notes, recordings, everything. It might sound weird for a company, but it's the natural way for open source organizations and foundations.

SEs main product is it's community, the community provides all the value. So as a company, SE must act differently from other companies that have services that do not derive value from community activity.

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TL;didR: "We regret that we actually need Meta: but turns out that we do, so here's the vaguest post so far, without mentioning any specifics at all."

This is my final interaction - SE is clearly convinced that nothing specifically wrong ever happened, there was no 2019 at all, and the post seems offended for needing to come back to this again. That, in turn, means that any hopes summoned last month were completely illusory. I'm deeply sorry that our story ends this way: godspeed, wherever you're going.

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    Bit of an overreaction. What else would you have preferred? Radio silence for 6 months until there is "enough" to go "hey, look, things sort of changed"? I know it's hard, but it's also hard for somebody to actually admit failure. Give the lady a chance, even if it's the last one. – Sébastien Renauld Mar 30 '20 at 21:24
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    Sorry, you're not describing any hypothetical future: I have already waited for improvement, multiple times, and that time "let's see if things have changed since the descent into madness began" is now. Have things changed? My conclusion is: not. (I have considered whether or not to log in for a comment reply, esp. given my post content; in the end, I disagree strongly enough) – Piskvor left the building Apr 2 '20 at 8:58
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First off, a post like this takes a lot of bravery to write, and for that, irrespective of the outcome over the next few months: thank you for the humility, and thank you for the courage to have owned up and taken responsibility for the decision. I don't know many people who would've done this if they could have avoided it.

It's good that you've gone over the data and noticed the change, although the main comment I would put in is: next time, don't make sweeping changes. Talk to people. I know that MSE feels rough sometimes (Yaakov noticed this on another thread - the feedback can be raw), but it's just like everything else: when you talk to people who care, they'll often be very direct about it. It's not a bad thing, although it can sometimes be synthesized down a bit to a less raw form (and that's something we should all strive towards).

Overall, I am very surprised that the feedback changed so rapidly. Probably felt like a cry for help from the people who were left by the wayside in the last 6 months (though, not all - I'll openly admit, I did not fill in any survey because I thought from the previous one and the lack of reply to the dataset that they'd just end up in /dev/null - I'm glad I was proven wrong!), which really does highlight that SO/SE and the community are two parts of the same organism/symbiotic relationship: if one starts to dominate, the other one suffers.

Similarly, though, two of the main issues during this crisis (which is still ongoing; as I'm sure you can understand, a single post doesn't undo 6 months of pain. Think of it like the rubble of a bridge - it takes a while to rebuild) were the communication by edicts and the overmoderation, typically of things that disagreed with the "common" view from your side. Those are tendencies that are typically tempting, but dead-ends in terms of communication. At the end of the day, it all boils down to talking with others, not to others - open two-way communication channels, be open to being wrong, and don't be afraid to admit it. It's just like engineering, failing fast is also a communication precept.

The code of conduct may still need some improvement, as does the welcoming wagon. Let's work together on this - because, at the end of the day, when we're all on the same boat, we're all a lot happier :-)

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Could you split the Other group in the “What do you find most frustrating or unappealing about using Stack Overflow?” graph?

The Other group is by far the most common group, and reading further:

we found most of it (85% of all “other” responses) fell into one of three groups: negative feedback about Stack Overflow company/leadership, concerns around issues happening in the community, and lastly, general community concerns

If 85% of Other falls within these 3 groups, the groups likely are larger than one of the bottom 10 groups in the graph, while the graph only contains 18 groups. Grouping these 3 groups together with other stuff seems silly and reduces the accuracy of the report.

Because this 85% was calculated, you must have categorized these Other questions in these 3 groups or Other other as well. I would very much be interested in this data.

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    @Mithical That's related, but this Other is 26.3% of answers and the top category (as opposed to 3.2% of the one you refer to) and apparently has already been subdivided in 3 categories + Other other. So it's a lot more logical to subdivide this one in at least those 3 discussed categories, as opposed to the one you're referring to which apparently holds many categories. – Erik A Mar 30 '20 at 16:29

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