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Short summary for short attention-spans:

  • Read answers below, vote them up or down based on how they align with your own perspective.
  • Write your own answer to the question, What change has the company made to Stack Exchange in the past year that will have the greatest long-term impact?
    • Summarize the change - it can be anything the company has done: feature work, policy changes, posts or even a favorite hat.
    • Write up your rationale: what effect has the change had thus far, and why you expect it to have a significant impact in the future.
    • It's fine to write about a change that someone else has already written about. But only if your rationale is unique!
  • The nominal "winner" is the author of the answer with the highest score by the end of Feb 28, 2021 (UTC). The reward is a Stack Exchange messenger bag / laptop purse - unused, slightly dusty. I'll commit to sending it anywhere in the world that I can buy postage for.

Details & motivation

I've been... Kinda negative here lately, and it's pissing me off. Writing about that blog post the other day reminded me that I take a lot more pleasure in writing about the things that have gone well than in those things which didn't.

I think it's healthy to take pleasure in things that have gone well, especially as a group.

Six months ago, I tried a little exercise in reflection, with the intent of encouraging others to do the same. But frankly... It was a slog, and I'm not too surprised that no one else took the bait.

So I thought, why not do this the Meta Stack Exchange way: competing answers with opinionated essays!

Also, I found some unused swag in my closet, and needed an excuse to get rid of it.

I'm not a huge contest person, but... I think they can be enjoyable, as long as we all remember that it's just a game and the real winners are the folks who benefit from the insights produced during the exercise.

So, if you've ever wanted to own a nice Timbuk2 bag with the Stack Exchange logo on it, now's the chance to put your Keyboard Warrior skills to work!

Let's have some fun... I've posted my answer below as an example, but it will not be eligible to win. I'll post results at the end of February!

15
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    When was the change from 5 to 3 close voters at Stack Overflow done (I was suspended for a longer while)? I think that was 2019 already? Are you asking about netweork wide changes only? – πάντα ῥεῖ Jan 30 at 15:53
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    That was Dec 2019, @πάνταῥεῖ - announcement: meta.stackoverflow.com/questions/391832/… And I don't care about the scope of the change, as long as you make a good argument for why it matters. – Shog9 Jan 30 at 15:54
  • Ty. I already thought so. My suspension started at Sep 2019, so I didn't notice until I came back last year. – πάντα ῥεῖ Jan 30 at 15:55
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    Yeah, sorry, "πάνταῥεῖ's suspension" doesn't qualify as a "most impactful change in 2020", but know that its impact was still felt! – Shog9 Jan 30 at 15:56
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    :-) BTW. It's great that you still share your knowledge and experience with the community here, and I appreciate that very much. If you ever come near here, you can count on being invited for a free beer (or any other drink of your choice) by me. – πάντα ῥεῖ Jan 30 at 16:00
  • @πάνταῥεῖ youtube.com/watch?v=GlhOUyy4wbs It was tuesday – Journeyman Geek Jan 30 at 17:56
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    I assume you mean end of 28th February utc? Time zones matter 😜... And just in the unlikely case I am the winner, I am not into swag. Feel free to sell it on ebay (I am sure you could make a bit of money announcing that here) and donate the money. – GhostCat Jan 30 at 19:35
  • @Shog9 I'd like to write something about the Review Queues Improvement project, which started in 2020, but hasn't finished yet... does that make it inappropriate for this post? – Ollie Jan 31 at 0:33
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    Up to you, @ollie - you're the one who has to rationalize it... – Shog9 Jan 31 at 3:29
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    @Shog9 Thank you for starting this post. It is very interesting to me as a Public Platform product manager to see what has had the most impact and why. – Anita Taylor Feb 1 at 21:12
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    @Shog9 there you go, done one ;) – Ollie Feb 8 at 19:10
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    Feature-Request More contests. Thanks Shog9 :) – Severus Snape Feb 11 at 17:38
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    @Shog9 Might this become a yearly tradition? – Ollie Feb 13 at 14:43
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    Maybe now that SE has swag again maybe they can sponsor it in future 😁 – Journeyman Geek Feb 14 at 3:43
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    Grabbed screenshot at UTC 0:00 - will announce later! – Shog9 Mar 1 at 0:16

11 Answers 11

22
+50

I spent most of 2019 firefighting. The decision was made that meta was no longer the primary means of communication - was something I disagreed with - (and was happy to monkeywrench by cross posting to meta).

I would say practically the root of the most impactful changes for 2020 are realising that past choices were wrong. We're not quite at an entente cordiale or what I would term 'a symbiotic relationship' - but we're also not quite in a situation where employees are scared of, or encouraged to avoid, meta. It's something that could inform the direction of the network if the company is willing to keep at it, and invest back into the community.

We have a foundation for something better - but I am still uncertain to whether that's a foundation of sand or stone we are building on. In between then and now, SE's occasionally made a few community-hostile decisions - but on the whole, I'm not constantly resolving some monumental, fresh mess up.

We have the community as a whole giving feedback on features - the work on commonmark and the new syntax highlight.js has SE devs, library authors and the community working together.

It's not quite a glorious summer of love, but the frosts have melted a bit.

So I would say, the biggest impact is - meta survived the year. But I have a slight bias here.

I would say, in 6 months I hope we have something more concrete than big plans. But right now, as a user of the network, and a MSE mod - the rededication to meta is a good starting point.

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    We survived... but I am not sure if that is enough for good foundation... I want more than surviving... on the other hand it could have been worse... – Resistance Is Futile Jan 31 at 13:32
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    Surviving means there's a tomorrow. There's an opportunity to do more than be more. I'm rather fond of this quote by Horace , even if was probably better in the original Klingon :D – Journeyman Geek Jan 31 at 14:13
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    "A foundation for something better" is not necessarily "a foundation for something good enough". I disagree about the foundation, much of which is the organizational structures and the governing documents. But I appreciate your sentiment. – einpoklum Feb 7 at 15:43
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    It's not worse but that's hardly good enough is it. And I'm not sure if it's a solid foundation yet. So we might agree more than you think – Journeyman Geek Feb 7 at 15:46
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    Congrats for the win, Journeyman! ;) – Ollie Mar 1 at 0:47
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    Been out of town and off grid, so less quick to post something than I'd hoped... But, send me your address and the messenger bag is yours! Email is at shog9.com – Shog9 Mar 7 at 5:20
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    @Shog9 Will you please, please quit updating your website so often? I can't keep checking it every year to see if I missed something. – Ollie Mar 8 at 20:09
19

For me, it was that change in attitude that became visible by the way it is expressed on the Stack Overflow blog, accompanied by MSE questions that invited for our feedback.

Doing so created a bridge between the public-facing efforts of Stack Exchange Inc and "our" realm. Many might not care about that first part, but for me that creates a public commitment. They simply can't walk away from that easily. That is a pretty good rationale for the dot Inc folks to be careful about not losing face by annoying us users again.

And from my point of view, the fact that they simple share a vision and made asking for our feedback a reoccurring thing is of tremendous importance. Sure, their vision might not always overlap with "our" thoughts, but they listen and adapt.

18

The most impactful change of 2020 was hiring Teresa Dietrich - see announcement 2020-01-15.

Rationale. In terms of "impact", seen from a user perspective, the hiring was the one single change that impacted everything. (Bringing ambitious fast-paced roadmaps, that made effective so many changes they're nearly countless and sometimes hard to keep up with.)

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    Hey @Shog9 if this answer wins your "messenger bag / laptop purse" is getting shipped to an orphanage in a far away poor country. – bad_coder Jan 30 at 19:07
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    What will orphans do with a bag or purse? ;) – Shadow The Vaccinated Wizard Jan 31 at 8:53
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    Well, if folks choose this answer (which I think is accurate and more interessting than UI). We pick/agree on a nice charity, and Shog donates the shipping costs to that place. Folks are invited to make their own donation if they want - I will. (Shog is left stuck with a piece of nylon he doesn't want, and by derailing the thread we play a funny trick on him and make the best of it.) Finally, we all get the satisfaction of a job well done together where there are only winners.(And hopefully Shog graces his readers with a nice post afterwards). – bad_coder Feb 1 at 6:24
  • With respect - Ms. Dietrich's approach vis-a-vis the community is highly problematic. See this, for example. I don't know that the technical changes are attributable to her (although I could be wrong I guess). So -1. – einpoklum Feb 8 at 21:52
  • @bad_coder: On second though, better to read the question (Ms Dietrich's post) before reading my answer. – einpoklum Feb 8 at 22:12
14

The change I think will be most impactful

CommonMark - the formatting language we all use to write posts here was changed from a unique flavor of Markdown to a standard (albeit slightly customized) CommonMark.

My rationale

Stack Overflow was one of the pioneers in popularizing Markdown, but after millions of posts written in it I think we're all aware of its deficiencies. One of my earliest memories of Stack Overflow's podcast was a discussion of the efforts of various community members to write a grammar for Markdown, with... Disappointing results.

CommonMark fixes that! - and more importantly, the migration to it brings Stack Exchange back into the larger community of sites, projects and people who are all working toward the same ends with tooling and content.

It's not the flashiest feature rolled out in 2020, but I firmly believe it will have the greatest long-term impact because of what it enables: collaboration with others.

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    Other than the importance of standard in principle - what were the concrete impacts of migrating SO to it (when it was already almost CommonMark anyway, IIRC)? – einpoklum Feb 8 at 21:54
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    The value of implementing the standard is in cleaning up ambiguous edge cases - both during the conversion, and ongoing as new posts are created and old ones edited. My personal pet peeves involve lists and code blocks, but there are loads of little things that are either possible now, or less likely to break when fed into a different parser in the future. – Shog9 Feb 9 at 1:30
13

Radical and oft-requested changes to our Creative Commons licensing policy occurred in 2020.

This was a huge step forward from Stack Exchange, both for demonstrating goodwill towards the community and to ensure the perennity of the site itself.

I will not emphasize the situation as it was in 2019, mostly because I want to play by the rules and focus this answer on the positive side of things, but let's just say we were there, and back then I had sunk to the point where I thought permanence of content (what I had signed on for in the first place -- an eternal repository of knowledge) was irremediably compromised.

But I was wrong. In early March 2020, Stack Exchange worked out a solution to our problem. SE developers then worked their rears off to deliver an implementation two months later. In both instances, community input was respected and taken into account.

The reason I believe this move is the real game-changer of 2020 is twofold. To elaborate on the points above:

It demonstrated goodwill towards the community, because it proved the SE staff could change their minds in the face of destructive endeavor towards our contributed content, as the community called them out on it. I honestly think this has resulted in quite a lot of good faith among those of us who spoke out before on that matter.

It ensured the perennity of the site itself, because things are now clear on the legal side regarding licensing, and we can now rest assured that the content we wrote ten years ago will remain under the license we agreed to at that time, and that future content will most probably follow the same track. This, in my humble opinion, is a good sign of contributed content remaining around for a while in a community-driven site.

12

I'll have to pick the new ask page. It is not exactly what I "designed" but on-boarding new question askers was long overdue.

I still want to believe Stack Overflow and the other sites in the Stack Exchange network are different than most other community content driven sites. Its difference is hardly understood in this current time-frame where almost every website / app has a textbox allowing you to spill your guts to the world. I sometimes wonder if even the company still understands how different their public QA offering is.

That said: Having guidance on that ask page and the review step should help a few percent of askers to improve their question before it gets thrown in front of the vultures to get picked apart. If what enters the system gets a tiny bit better it might lead to less friction downstream, more effective curation, better retention and who knows even appreciation from the Twitter bystanders.

I hope we can see some of that investment returned in 2021 and if proper data analysis shows it helped writing the script of the future I'm sure product management will put in more dev cycles to get even more script out of it.

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    I think you probably would have gotten more votes if new users were on Meta.MSE . So even though the redesign was basically background noise to me personally... +1. – einpoklum Feb 8 at 21:45
12

Change in the "official" way how Meta impact is estimated.

now management have numbers to know what every regular on metas already knew for a long time: that metas are critically important and shouldn't be neglected and that SE can't simply get rid of them thinking that tomorrow will be a better day than yesterday...

It was announced and explained in second half of Feb 2020 and most if not all important changes of past year appear to be done based on a new official theory which gives more importance to meta: tables, dark mode, recovery of Hot Meta Posts at Stack Overflow, CommonMark, "following" feature, new ask page, new licensing scheme.

One can argue that some of listed changes aren't very important - if memory serves I saw this said about dark mode and "following" - but anyway, these were quite effort consuming features derived from popular meta requests, in the stark contrast with what we observed in the past, with previous official theory of .015%.

It was maybe even more prominent to observe impact of new approach on handling of changes that were reasonably quickly and firmly reverted per negative meta feedback: "thank you" reaction and technical site integration on Stack Overflow.


Granted, this new estimate doesn't look like coming out of thin air. Closer look at prior year of 2019 shows quite a lot of features addressing popular meta requests - as if folks doing these kept believing that meta is important. But these were rather heavily obscured by things done based on previous official theory of .015%.

If it wasn't that painful, I would say that 2019 was a year of discovery, when company tried to figure how come that things work kind of opposite to how it was expected per previous official theory and if there could be a way to do something about that.

Looking back, new meta impact estimation seems to make kind of a pivotal point, after which things have taken a distinctly different direction compared to how it was before.

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    I used word 'official' describing new way of impact estimation because as was pointed in comments discussing this change, some in the company tried to act based on this kind of understanding long before it was officially announced. Apparently, back then they made much less impact because prior official theory of .015% was rather opposite to that – gnat Feb 8 at 16:40
11

For people who are not aware of what’s going on behind the scenes, one could argue that

When you think about it
Tables were the most
impactful change in 2020

and perhaps that's an optimistic way to look at things.

9

The company avoided making 2020 yet another 2019.

If I need to explain the rationale to you, you have already voted this post down. Enough said.

1
6

DARK MODE

The dark mode beta for Stack Overflow was released in 2020.

A look back at SO in 2019:

2019 Light Mode

This has a huge impact as it allows us to view Stack Overflow without wearing our sunglasses.

You may ask, "why do programmers use dark mode?"... Because it allows us to .

5

For me, it’s definitely the Updates to the Review Queues (project is still ongoing, but started in 2020 and I really wanted to write about it). I think this is impactful and a big step forward, especially because of the improved experience for users with review suspensions. Better looks, new help articles in easier-to-reach places; I think this will make for easier reviewing and teaching.

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