28

Obviously, being there and seeing for myself is ideal, but with a network as big as ours, that’s not always possible. So please tell me: what’s one thing that you think it's critical to know, in order to really understand your community?

This can be something that makes it unique, a particularly strongly-felt principle - anything you’d like me to know about your community. (Oh, and you might also tell me what community you’re talking about….)


The origin of this question series: shortly after I was named VP-Community, I did a series of questions like this to get to know the network, and the people here. Then life got out of hand and I stopped doing them for a while. I want to restart doing them on a regular basis, because they were a high-signal, low-noise way for me to learn more about the network. All the questions in this series share a tag. Anyone - yes, even you - with enough rep to participate here is welcome to post an answer.

12
  • 59
    It would be pretty handy right now if you had some employees who were in touch with the community. Oct 24, 2023 at 5:27
  • 8
    I like that you're rebooting this series! Oct 24, 2023 at 5:51
  • 2
    Site specific knowledge and in the case of SO tag specific knowledge. Good luck with that one.
    – MT1
    Oct 24, 2023 at 6:27
  • 20
    Well, how to get started... let me see. You (yes, you are personally major part of it this time) laid off the one who posted the most popular answer to one of those questions you try to "revive". Coincidence? I don't think so. "what’s one thing that you think it's critical to know" - know the users and what they care about, because currently such knowledge does not exist even a bit. Oct 24, 2023 at 8:27
  • 13
    Too short for an answer: no community is 'mine', and it isn't 'yours' (anyone else's) either. It's made up of individuals who will do as they darn well please. The only way anyone gets to be part of a particular one to call their 'own' is by behaving so the rest of the individuals decide to like them.
    – Tinkeringbell Mod
    Oct 24, 2023 at 12:17
  • 8
    @Tinkeringbell - in this case, I think it's self-evident that I mean "the community that you identify with". I'm usually pretty careful about the terms "mine" and "your" as possessives, but I missed it here, apologies.
    – Philippe StaffMod
    Oct 24, 2023 at 14:19
  • 7
    @Philippe it's not just this post, though it did remind me to comment on it. For example, this blog is also a good example of using those possessives. It's a broader pattern.
    – Tinkeringbell Mod
    Oct 24, 2023 at 15:01
  • 9
    Too small for an answer but be present and active as a user on a site. Any site. Get down in the 'weeds' as it were. Do stuff with a non-mod, non-staff account that doesn't bypass privilege levels. Vote, make an edit here and there, watch them get approved or rejected. Ask a dumb question on a site's meta about policy. Participate in a review queue. Do it anonymously (or at least give the site mods a heads up that an account is a sock of yours in case any alarm bells go off)
    – Robotnik
    Oct 25, 2023 at 1:32
  • 1
    @Robotnik That's long enough for an answer; I've posted shorter ones.
    – wizzwizz4
    Oct 25, 2023 at 9:10
  • 9
    Should we expect any responses to the answers below? Oct 25, 2023 at 9:56
  • 2
    Some old words from Jeff Atwood
    – T. Sar
    Oct 25, 2023 at 16:11
  • 14
    When the company talks about "community" it really should define it means. You are kinda addressing the most dedicated and passionate users on the network who are likely to have the original mission at the top of mind. See my blog post for more of my thoughts from several years ago. Oct 25, 2023 at 20:28

13 Answers 13

73

Let me tell you a story. Myself and friends used to have a favorite place with casual atmosphere and great food. We used to go there several times a week, netting them ~$1000 by a conservative estimate a month (to put things into perspective, it's the upper end of an average non-IT monthly income where I live) from visits alone. We kept recommending the place to other friends and coworkers. Staff knew us well and have built quite a rapport with us.

Then new management happened. First, they laid off staff we knew. Fine, we kept going there, and eventually came to friendly terms with the new ones. Then, they laid off those ones. Finally, they decided to make the establishment fancier, which killed the atmosphere as well. We haven't been to the place once ever since. No one recommends it anymore either.

In case the key takeaway from the story isn't clear enough, the most critical thing to understand is the reasons why your community returns to the place or stops doing so. No amount of knowledge about a specific community will help you if you don't understand those.

One of the reasons is the feeling of ownership members of the community have (or, in our case, a lack thereof). Ownership here refers to not feeling like an outsider, which includes (but is, as they say, not limited to):

  • being able to build rapport with staff, opportunities for which are steadily becoming more and more scarce (October, 2023 layoffs, May, 2023 layoffs, 2020 layoffs);
  • being heard (continuing to say "we are listening" when your actions speak otherwise doesn't count, examples of which are too numerous to fit into the character limit);
  • feeling that owners' ideals are compatible (for example, which is especially true of a network built on volunteer efforts, that the sole goal is not making as much money as possible);
  • feeling valued (applied to the network, it's community-requested features being prioritized, open and frequent communication, feedback actually taken into account, following the broader consensus when introducing / changing policies, etc.).

P. S.

I left the community that I considered basically my online home for many years (Stack Overflow) back in mid June exactly over the company, through its actions, showing that it's not understanding (or, worse, is understanding and willfully disregarding) those reasons.

We keep telling you the same things, just differently worded (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, and many, many others) — if you really want to understand us, members (former or present) of communities, listen.

1
  • 11
    Essentially, the problems the company has seems cyclic, and there's an entire chorus of cassandras Oct 24, 2023 at 12:07
48

"It’s little and broken… but still good. Yeah, still good."


It's made up of extremely intelligent, educated, and principled individuals.

In this specific context, I'm primarily referring to the community of moderators and power users that make up the curator userbase, but it applies to a very significant percentage of the people contributing to the sites.

I've been in these spaces for a long time. On the main sites, per-site metas, this main Meta, chat, the Mod Team, the unofficial SE Discord server, and more. I've gotten to know a bunch of the people behind the avatars beyond just reading their posts on the main sites.

When you wander into the TL, the number of people who are entitled to put "Dr." in front of their name is... astounding. Heck, you have moderators and users with their own Wikipedia pages. I am continuously surprised by many of the people here hold doctorates in various fields, but I shouldn't be; you can tell by the way that people contribute that they're intelligent and educated people. I have, and cherish, the privilege of being among these people and learning what I can from them.

You have professionals in every field imaginable. UX professionals, software engineers, academic researchers, technical writers, DBAs, and more, often more than willing to freely give their input on anything.

And people are principled. Why do people contribute to the network? For much the same reason people contribute to Wikipedia - to create a freely-available, well-maintained repository of information for everyone to access and benefit from. Moderators spent time chasing down plagiarism and fraud for absolutely no personal gain. Volunteers spend years developing their own tools to fix broken images or remove spam - all out of what boils down to idealism. This also shows in some of the standards we have for posts, such as citing sources when necessary and the care taken in sites such as Skeptics or Politics to avoid propaganda and misinformation.


To really understand the community, you always have to remember that you're dealing with a community of highly intelligent people with the goal of sharing and maintaining knowledge...

...but that that same community has been pretty bitter and cynical for a long time now. I don't want to get into that too much at the moment - we've had, uh, words about this in the past - but it's important to acknowledge that that's the case. I don't want to be a Debbie Downer, but at this point, I really don't know how that's going to improve. I thought that after negotiations concluded, and other efforts were made, that we were headed in the right direction, but after more recent events, I don't know if it's going to be possible to salvage the community that we had here in the past. I certainly hope so, though.

8
  • 3
    I'd say less bitter and cynical than hurt and reactive. Bitter and cynical, you can't fix. Hurt and reactive, you can Oct 24, 2023 at 10:49
  • 3
    @JourneymanGeek Always the optimist :)
    – Joachim
    Oct 24, 2023 at 14:36
  • 5
    Well said. On the site I'm most active on, TeX.se, at least half of the top 20 users have PhDs in a variety of disciplines and most of the core TeX developers are active on the site. But your main point is not so much that, but about principles that we share, and this is something that is what makes the SE communities special. If those principles don't continue to be respected and in fact encouraged, the sites will quickly lose their value.
    – Alan Munn
    Oct 24, 2023 at 14:50
  • 1
    There isn't any space for bitterness and cynicism if the expectations were low to begin with. More like hope a (real) competitor could emerge and kick them in their collective <censored>. Oct 24, 2023 at 15:30
  • 1
    Mithical, can you please mention in the post what is there in the Teams link which you have added, for non mods? Oct 24, 2023 at 15:40
  • A subject describes the Wikipedia page as "silly". Oct 24, 2023 at 17:01
  • 2
    @RandomPerson I think you can gather from the context of the post here that Mithical is referring to continued (post-strike) efforts between mods and staff to address the gaps/issues in communication between company/staff and moderators/curators/other "power" users. That is, continuing the efforts of the negotiations that led to ending the strike. Oct 24, 2023 at 20:59
  • @This_is_NOT_a_forum instructions unclear. which collective would you like me to kick?
    – starball
    Oct 25, 2023 at 15:39
47

I think a better question is: "What do we really need to do to understand your community?"

  • Dogfood everything continually. Instead of cutting down on Community-a-thon, do it all the time. If you use the site, I probably don't have to tell you what the pain points are and what the systemic problems are. You'll have felt and seen them yourself, and you'll want them to be addressed. Ask questions. Answer questions. Do reviews. Flag things that should be flagged. Vote to close things that should be closed. Make edits.

  • Be visibly present. Partake in meta outside of announcements. Hang out in chat sometimes. Heck- even if you just lurk and never say anything, seeing a staff user present would be welcome.

Don't just listen to us (and it often feels like even just getting listened to is hard enough). Be one of us. Try to put some of the same heart and time into the knowledge-base as we do.

I know you have your job and you're busy. And the staff cuts probably don't help. But it seems like participation from company staff in regular site activities is just on a continual decline. A baby step is better than nothing. Catija and V2Blast (and others before them) did these kinds of things, and that's why they're so loved and missed.

2
  • 15
    When I was a newbie, I was talking fairly consistently with people in the SRE teams (via serverfault), devs , and CMs. We even had Jeff drop by on root access. I had conversations about yogurt rice with Aarthi, who had confused someone else with me cause a mod had mentioned that we were from the same linguistic group. SE had this, then... lost a lot of it. Oct 24, 2023 at 10:56
  • 7
    +100; one of the best things about Codidact is knowing that I can speak with Monica, Mithical and the rest of the team directly if the situation merits. Better yet, they'll respond to me on their own initiative if the situation merits. Oct 26, 2023 at 1:52
38

We have a specific goal, and you should too

One would hope it's obvious, as it's stated right on the tour page:

With your help, we're working together to build a library of detailed, high-quality answers to every question about ___.

(___ differs per community. And there's an implied "...[we do that] to help people." at the end.)

Why do you think people stick around for years, answering thousands of questions? Do we have nothing better to do? Some newcomers think we just like solving random exercises, and then are confused when their homework questions get closed.

If you look back to the actions of the company, the ones that help with this goal were received well, and those that harm it were received badly:

  • GenAI ban was heavily supported, since GenAI directly harms this goal. Conversely, the temporary removal of that ban caused a strike.

  • Collectives have nothing to do with this goal, so they received little to no support.

  • ...

The people who created the company gathered the community around this premise. Take a look at some of the old blog posts. But it seems the company as it is now doesn't share this goal, it just kind of exists and floats around, making random changes here and there to make some money.

We want help with this goal. Such as better onboarding for newcomers (so that they actually understand what we're trying to do here and what's expected of them, not "signalling that we're welcoming").

8
  • 7
    The implied 'to help people' is not great, it's problematic too. On one side, this leads to entitled users thinking their question has to be answered and they have to be helped, on the other side are users not looking enough for the quality of questions, wanting to answer everything to 'help' someone instead of focusing on building that library. If there's a way to get rid of that implied 'to help people', both of the aforementioned attitudes should become less of a problem too.
    – Tinkeringbell Mod
    Oct 24, 2023 at 6:27
  • 6
    @Tinkeringbell I believe "to help people" part is necessary. It's not a permission to blatantly break the rules, because we agreed/determined that following them is the best way to help people on this site. Forgetting about the goal to help leads to problematic behavior. (Such as closing questions with vaguely related duplicate targets, when it's clear that OP with their current level of knowledge can't possibly understand how they apply to their problem, without leaving even a comment setting them on the right track.) Oct 24, 2023 at 6:54
  • 4
    @HolyBlackCat I can see both sides of it. I’ve encountered users that blatantly ignore our question quality standards in the name of helping the user, to the point that they perform closure reviews wrong to try and prevent question closure. But I’ve also fought for repealing policies that artificially obstruct our ability to help users. Oct 24, 2023 at 12:16
  • 11
    I think probably what HolyBlackCat means by "to help people" is that the purpose of this library is to be helpful, broadly. Not that we help every person who thinks they need help in the way they think they want to be helped. There's a genuine purpose to it. Oct 24, 2023 at 14:56
  • 2
    @BryanKrause Exactly. Oct 24, 2023 at 15:10
  • 9
    Building a library of detailed questions cannot be the company's central goal anymore. Its central goal is to provide a ROI for the organization that paid $1.8 billion for it. The best you can hope for is temporary alignment where building a library of detailed questions and answers happens to be beneficial to the central goal. If you're happy to bet your time and energy on this alignment lasting a while to come, then that's fantastic. Seriously! You'll probably help a lot of people. If you're not happy with the bet's odds, you should consider investing your time and energy elsewhere.
    – Pekka
    Oct 24, 2023 at 15:21
  • 2
    @Pekka That's why bringing the engagement metrics up for SO and other public sites is paramount to the public sites remaining relevant and receiving updates/improvements. Whether that be through improving what we have, or providing more reasons for people to join and participate (such as a return of careers that actually supports developers looking for jobs.)
    – Kevin B
    Oct 24, 2023 at 15:26
  • 2
    [cont.] If the sites stay as they currently are, they will continue to be less of a revenue stream YoY and never get the support they need. Is there a future for a library of detailed questions and answers existing? who knows. but if the community is going to continue to exist, the site needs to adjust to the needs of the community.
    – Kevin B
    Oct 24, 2023 at 15:26
30

Some of us are deeply invested in the site

Not monetarily, but in hours of our lives, and voluntarily. A nice statistic is that currently, on Stack Overflow, over 40.000 users have the fanatic badge, which means they visited the site every day for 100 days consecutively, which likely means even during vacations. Some of us have contributed to software tools, userscripts, and moderation tools. We even expect moderators on Stack Overflow to contribute a significant chunk of their day to their task.

As "investors", we want the best for the site, and to be involved in the decision making, to make sure our contributions do not degrade in value due to the site degrading.

This also means decisions like reducing the number of community managers, or replacing the top search results with a GenAI result deeply affect us, and affect the value of our contributions (I'm currently 3/3 for GenAI responses being totally incorrect, mainly use search to find non-obvious duplicates) .

While our interests are not monetary, we shouldn't be ignored as stakeholders in decision making, and should be consulted early on whenever possible.

1
  • 2
    While I agree with your point, I don't think that "nice statistic" is actually so nice to prove it. A significant number of those fanatic badges could just come from people scripting their accounts to log in every day. Certainly that's the case on many of the much smaller network sites, where many or even most of the Fanatic badges are for 101-rep users who have no activity on that site. Oct 25, 2023 at 15:02
29

People matter.

There's always been a few personalities that have had an outsized effect on a single community or the aggregate communities.

Some are fonts of knowledge on a specific obscure field - I talk to one of the old Server Fault regulars when I need advice on 10 GigE networking or ZFS, or someone pokes at my weirder computer problems or generally a good general source of knowledge. Fewer of these conversations happen on Stack Exchange and SE chat, as these communities drifted away, but stuck together elsewhere. I've always been hopeful they'd return under the right conditions, though those conditions feel distant.

The needs of the many the "Millions of users" are often served by the knowledge of the few. Keeping and building those cores of expert users is essential. We've had a few brain drains over the years.

Other actually stumble into roles of community leadership. It took a lot of nagging to get me to stand to be a moderator back in the day, and despite the bigger community the folks with the ability are rare, and sometimes their willingness to step up is rarer when they hear horror stories or people they trust get treated less than well.

This is also true of broader communities and community management. The ability to attract talent and retain it, either as staff or as community folks as a force multiplier is affected by how the community - or in our sense our people are treated. I'd consider many of the community team, current or historic as well as folks elsewhere who put in the work as such. They're family in a sense.

Valuing and nurturing the folks, either in individual communities or in your team over time is essential. I didn't feel up to moderating Super User till 4-5 years in the community, and ... that's less time than the average CM seems to have in the community. The selection of who gets downsized doesn't quite help this. They have... seemingly made the most damaging choices possible, even when there's no such thing as a 'good' choice here.

Communities need stability. They need people they can trust and work with. Communities also lose trust quickly and generally it takes too long to resolve a crisis with the structure we have now. It’s been the case for quite a while. We've a shaky edifice, with bricks constantly being pinched for someone's dream castle.

We've generally not had more than a few years of stability. We go from one crisis to another, with what feels like a growing gap between what the company wants and can achieve, and what we want and what we get.

We need our pillars (which seem the first things to go) in these storms, and folks who're willing to build those ties retained. I'd love to see a place where my communities in exile return, and I feel the contributions of those of ours are valued, and the people we consider within as parts of the community grow, both as people, and in numbers.

People matter. We'd love to see that understood.

22

The people that pay for your products and the people that use the sites belong to the same group.

If people are unhappy with the site, they'll be less likely to use your products. They'll be less likely to recommend them, and they'll be less likely to engage with them. If we have to use them because of company mandate, we'll balk at it, suggest options, or straight up avoid it until engagement falls down and the thing gets replaced by a cheaper/free option that we actually enjoy using.

The only reason Teams is a product at all is because we used to enjoy using the site. Stack was awesome, and we liked the idea of having a "personal" stack for our companies because it was really cool and all. It felt good.

Now it doesn't feel cool anymore. I don't feel inclined to interact with our teams space, because that would give a reason to keep using a product of a company that I lost my respect for.

And, sure. That's a drop in the ocean. But my colleagues are following suit, too. Our Company Discord is slowly getting more useful than our Teams. It's just a matter of time before our manager pulls the plug on the Teams project, because - why bother? We aren't using it anyway. Not anymore, at least.

That's not specific to us - it's a network wide thing. We are enjoying using the Stack sites so little that we're on the point we're packing up stuff and leaving, finding other sites that we can use, or straight up setting our own alternatives just to avoid engaging with the honestly horrible management Stack Exchange had for the last bunch of years.

The people that pay for SE's bills, directly or indirectly, is the community - either by implementing its tools on our workplaces or by being the targets for ads. You can try to make all sorts of new products, shiny AI's, fancy stuff for teams, etc. However, if the community is unhappy with you, we'll be reluctant to use those on our workplaces. We'll be reluctant to recommend them to our bosses.

SE lost focus, and "pulled a Meta". It seems you guys are so focused on getting on the new trends to "make money" that you lost sight of where your money actually comes from. As Zuckerberg just discovered, having a product means nothing if you don't have people willing to use it.

Investing on tech that people do not want to engage with is a fool's errand.

6
  • 2
    Yet, it grew to 15,000 organisations after late 2020 (or perhaps later than that; it wasn't specified): "...the Teams business really accelerated. That business now has every possible bank on the platform, every tech company that you can imagine, big retail companies, Microsoft, you name it. With all these 15,000 organizations..." Oct 24, 2023 at 16:27
  • 4
    @This_is_NOT_a_forum Considering that Teams is free to use for small-to-medium teams, that number is not that impressive. My own company tried teams when it launched, and now it is basically a dead corner of our process that nobody uses. If teams was sucessful as this article claim, we wouldn't be having those layoffs...
    – T. Sar
    Oct 24, 2023 at 16:34
  • @This_is_NOT_a_forum Thanks for linking me that article. It was a good reminder that profits and revenue aren't the same. It appears that most of the cash that is being made with Teams is being shoved into their operational costs with other SaaS solutions.
    – T. Sar
    Oct 24, 2023 at 16:46
  • @This_is_NOT_a_forum To give a very stupid example regarding the number of orgs using Teams - the place I work at has a very, very, very niche app that runs only on very specific hardware. We have four times that amount of orgs using our software, all thanks to the magic of it being free. The 1.7 version of our software - launched around 2021 or so - has around 37 thousand installations so far.
    – T. Sar
    Oct 24, 2023 at 18:47
  • 5
    @This_is_NOT_a_forum Our team's total size, including everyone, is barely above 200 employees - the software team is around 50 people or so. And yet, somehow, we're doing better than SE and their 1.8 billion sale, with their team being double the size and serving a way broader appeal platform, that is actually monetized per month instead of a single, relatively cheap one-time license if the user finds the software useful and wants premium.
    – T. Sar
    Oct 24, 2023 at 18:53
  • @This_is_NOT_a_forum The recent blog post makes it look like there is still the same 15k organizations since 2020.
    – T. Sar
    Nov 19, 2023 at 3:40
21

I've been thinking about this question. But instead of an answer, I'll pose another question: Why don't you find out for yourself?

To be clear, I don't necessarily mean "you" as in "Philippe", but the more broad "you" as in "all of the people at the company, regardless of their role". And, unless people are using sockpuppet accounts, I don't see company employees that have a staff badge participating on the communities where I do.

Sure, you won't get full coverage. There are some more esoteric communities - Bioacoustics, Proof Assistants, Quantum Computing. Just looking at the professional capacities of company employees, you'd cover Stack Overflow, Cross Validated, Server Fault, Database Administrators, Data Science, Information Security, Software Engineering, Code Review, User Experience, The Workplace, Network Engineering, DevOps, Writing, Open Source, GenAI, Software Quality Assurance & Testing, Project Management, Interpersonal Skills, and Community Building. You'd get even broader coverage if you asked people to find sites associated with hobbies or personal interests and gave them some time out of their workday to participate on these sites.

Then, have these staff participate on Meta sites. I wouldn't be surprised if some of the elected mods would be willing to offer some more personalized help in a chat setting, too. If any staff member - CM or otherwise - wanted to chat about Software Engineering or Project Management, I'd make myself available.

I realize that you won't be able to participate on every site in the network, even if every person in the company participated on every site that remotely covered a topic they were interested in. But just trying to actively participate would answer this question far better than reading our words and would actually show, demonstrably, that you're interested. We really don't have a guarantee that anyone will even read, much less act on, anything we say here. But we can see and measure staff participation on our sites.

6
  • 1
    Well they have these, but even that was cut off, naturally. Not that it did much good, but still, it did show some (probably artificial) will to encourage staff to take part in the sites. Oct 24, 2023 at 18:16
  • 13
    @ShadowWizardIsSadAndAngry The artificial nature was always...artificial. The people never really became part of the community. Doing things like encouraging employees to find, participate in relevant sites, and engaging with the community on Meta and chats should be a long-term thing and not something that they do for a couple of weeks at a time. Oct 24, 2023 at 18:18
  • 1
    And now couple of days, likely to be 0 next year, yep. Oct 24, 2023 at 20:04
  • 2
    I'll agree with this. If(SE) staff would like advice or guidance on MSO, MSE, or Meta AU, feel free to ping me and I can probably try to offer some constructive advice
    – cocomac
    Oct 25, 2023 at 1:14
  • The problem with giving people time out of their working days to interact with the community is that the next time you need to save a few quid (e.g. tomorrow), you'll have them stop doing it
    – Richard
    Oct 28, 2023 at 22:50
  • @Richard The cost of dogfooding often vastly outweighs the costs. However, it's also much harder to quantify the value, which usually results in the problem you're presenting. The only solution is to have leadership that recognizes the value and finds other ways to save money. Oct 29, 2023 at 1:06
20

Stack Overflow and the rest of SE are not the same thing

Most SE sites are small and niche. There's a bit more "community" between the users.

Stack Overflow is a giant balkanized site. The C++ community is not the same as the PHP community. Is not the same as the Java community. Is not the same as the JavaScript community. Is not the same as...

You get the idea.

It's easy to think "I participate in Stack Overflow", but the community there is quite fractious and, due to its enormous size, hard to fit into one single box.

1
  • 3
    I don't think there is such a thing as a community that has thousands members. I think even on SO, which is many communities, the actual community is maybe a hundred people with lots of visitors and passers-by.
    – ColleenV
    Oct 26, 2023 at 11:57
18

Speaking from my experience when I used to participate more here and on Arqade, and from what I find to still mostly apply...

Other answers have touched a lot on the subject that every community exists because the people there want to be there, and they want their community to thrive. But a community is comprised of individuals, and individuals all have their own perspectives, even if they aim for that same objective. And in pursuant to hitting that objective, people tend to take the hard, objective stance. So I find it's important to notice that what often is attempted is a dialogue, with bi-directional respect.

Probably the easiest distracting illustration of this is closure as a duplicate. Does it seem rude to be slapped with "Oh now no one can answer the question because the asker FAILED THE RULES", sure. But if an observer peels the layers of what happened, that's not what actually happened. A link to an existing question, ideally with an answer already present, is given so that the asker doesn't even have to perform a search. The state is also reversible, allowing the asker to improve their inquiry with data to distinguish that isn't answered by the existing question. Ultimately, the users genuinely want the asker to find the answer to their question, but they can't do it on their own. They need to work with the asker to get the information because the asker is the one that has what's needed to go towards the answer. If they wanted to shut the door they could've spent far less time than what it takes to identify a duplicate and mark it for closure.

This applies not just to a lot of other mechanical aspects of the network, but also just in how a lot of energetic and delightful people, both moderator and power user, operate. Some folk are actually just ornery but they're still respectfully ornery. There were some particular folks, we butted heads a fair amount. But in time I came to understand that it was to our mutual benefit that we butted heads. They intended to read everything I wrote in exchange to expect I would read what they wrote, even if they might've sounded otherwise. There was a saying I was taught by someone that I can't remember the exacts of, but it went along the lines of "When I write that tomfoolery isn't allowed, but don't explicitly write that shenanigans aren't allowed, it isn't because shenanigans are allowed but because I respect your intelligence enough to infer that they are not allowed without me needing to tell you since they're not that far from tomfoolery." To this day I wish I could remember it properly by name or at least the statement. But that statement is kinda representative of what I mean here, in a sorta not exactly but I think it's understandable what I mean maybe way. Sometimes it'll feel like you're being torn to shreds by folks as if you're some non-entity, them ignoring that you, too, are an individual who cares about the network. But the reality is that they do acknowledge you as an individual like them, that's why they're taking the time to jump in and write as much as they do. Most folks speak up because they want someone to talk with, not simply someone to talk at. That I find is critical, because it's from that dialogue that progress can be made.

15

One thing that's critical to know, actually in order to really understand most of the communities, but this answer is specifically about the Mathematics SE community which is the one I'm most involved in and knowledgeable about, is that there's a relatively large amount of diversity. Specifically, there are several different types (effectively, "dimensions"):

  1. There is a wide range of math knowledge and experience. The site caters to members starting from only very basic, elementary level knowledge, all the way up, with basically no upper limit. From viewing various members profiles, I've seen that, especially among the more prolific answerers, many have post-graduate degrees (mostly in math), including being post-docs, former or current math professors, etc. In addition, quite a few are also major contributors to MathOverflow, the related site for professional mathematicians.

  2. The range, and level of abstractness, of math topics. Math is involved, to a greater or lesser extent, in almost all fields and areas of life, with some of them even having their own specific fields of math. The Math SE site also receives questions where there's a specific other SE site where they could be asked instead, e.g., statistics related questions instead of them being posted on Cross Validated, research level math questions rather than on MathOverflow, etc.

  3. The degree to which people either ask or answer questions. I've found that although there are a few members who both ask and answer quite a few questions, most people are primarily asking questions (e.g., students), with the remaining ones mostly answering them (e.g., current or retired teachers and mathematicians).

  4. There is a lot of variation in the level of posting activity on the site among different members. Most members ask or answer just a few questions over many years, while a few others are very active instead, with this apparently mostly being with answering.

  5. Curation activity (e.g., editing, closing, deleting, etc.) levels vary greatly among the members. Only a relatively small faction of the members, among those who have the appropriate privileges available, do any curation at all, much less being relatively active. For example, with closing, it seems there's only about 30 or 40 members who are relatively active doing that, with several often hitting the 20 reviews daily limit, and a few at times reaching the 50 close votes per day limit (I do so myself, and I've read about several others as well).

  6. Among the generally more active members, such as those who participate on the Math Meta site, there are a diversity of opinions about various topics, such as what constitutes sufficient context for questions, how well new members are being treated, whether or not a question should be closed as a duplicate based on issues such as how similar it is, etc.

  7. Different groups of members have various, sometimes contradictory, goals for the site. For example, some are mainly interested in getting information (either by asking in questions, or reading already existing questions and answers), others mostly want to help members (and the general public) by answering questions, many are working towards building a library of high-quality knowledge, etc.

  8. The site's community and culture are changing as it's growing and maturing. Some members move on, while we also acquire many new members. Also, with the various procedures and policies, some existing ones are changing while new ones are also being enacted, based on the current circumstances (e.g., the standards for what's considered acceptable has generally increased, there were many discussions over 10 years ago about homework questions (with the general consensus which was reached being to allow them but only with appropriate context), and more recently (about 2 1/2 years ago), there's Enforcement of Quality Standards to require members to avoid answering poor quality questions).

These different types and ranges of diversity means it's hard to really understand the community unless one takes a lot of time and effort to do things like participate in the site (e.g., posting questions or answers), read many of the meta posts, get involved in some of the related chat sites, etc. This is why I'm glad that, on several occasions, the SE company has encouraged staff to participate on various SE sites (e.g., the initial 2020 Community-a-thon: Increasing SE staff engagement with our sites and communities, and the latest Community-a-thon 2023 kicks off on October 13th). I've spent a lot of time (I believe more than I should have) over the last about 5 years doing this on the Math site. Thus, I think I now have a fairly good understanding of it, but I would still not claim to be an expert about the site. Also, I'm still learning, not only because there's so much to know but, because as point #8 above states, the site's culture is changing.

2
  • 7
    I'm also on math.se drastically more than any other site, and I'd say that @johnomielan has characterized it very well. I don't know that this will give Phillipe much guidance, though. Which is probably okay. Math.se often seems to exist off to the side. We're rather big, but probably commercially useless. I'd say our biggest problem is figuring out how to avoid becoming a "do my homework for me" dumping ground, while still leaving room for newcomers to feel welcome.
    – JonathanZ
    Oct 24, 2023 at 21:53
  • 1
    +1 from another MSE'r. I would maybe add to #8 that EoQS was not such an overwhelming consensus as it was made to be, and it drove away several old-time contributors. Guess that's part of "culture is changing", but at least that was of community's own making. The latest rounds of AI, strike and layoffs are of SO's making alone. While I commend @Phillipe for engaging here, I don't know what his chances are to make a difference if the higher-ups have already decided that they are not listening.
    – dxiv
    Nov 5, 2023 at 6:41
13

You can't know the community unless you're a part of it, in the same way a rich politician is unlikely to understand the struggles of choosing between food and heating.

Back during the Monica saga I remember there was a blog post that mentioned SO staff were being encouraged to participate but that never seems to happen (or I never see it at least).

So since noone ever seems to become a part of the community, then you're left looking from the outside in, and when we tell you that collectives etc are missing the mark repeatedly with feedback seemingly falling on deaf ears, then you must come to the conclusion that communities are just oppressed by a corporation.

4
  • 2
    There are some barriers (my emphasis): "Stack Overflow Employees have panic attacks and nightmares when they know they will need to post something to Meta. They are real human beings that are affected by the way people speak to them. ... I can’t, with good conscience, force anyone to participate in a venue that causes that type of psychological damage at work.". Has it fundamentally changed? Oct 24, 2023 at 16:01
  • 2
    @This_is_NOT_a_forum - oh absolutely, but why would it have to be meta and not a community that is relevant to them (not saying they should be forced to join a community either). I.e ux - "My boss is forcing me to put black scroll bars on our black code boxes, how can I make this bearable?" or workplace - "My team just lost half of the staff, what can help me improve morale?", the company gets staff who have a better understanding of a users journey and the staff can see the pains we go through in finding a simple scroll bar (this bugs me alot) and a first hand understanding of our issues.
    – Sayse
    Oct 24, 2023 at 16:40
  • ^ This is only under the context of the original question too of "how can I understand a community", If someone doesn't want to then im not suggesting they be forced to because that would be detremental to everyone
    – Sayse
    Oct 24, 2023 at 16:43
  • 3
    @This_is_NOT_a_forum It seems like that kind of thing only happens when they're posting to meta on behalf of the company. Like, we do need to stop shooting the messenger, but equally this seems like a meta-specific problem that they wouldn't encounter as normal users. (I don't think requiring staff to do Q&A is practical – not everyone has the relevant skills, and we really don't want the perverse incentives that come from trying to hit a quota – but recommending they try for at least 1 rep point per month might be appropriate. A single suggested edit would achieve that.)
    – wizzwizz4
    Oct 26, 2023 at 2:15
11

what’s one thing that you think it's critical to know, in order to really understand your community?

TL;DR: there's not one thing, there are many. And your only way to understand the communities is to switch from back-office to front-office.

Back to some previous dark days, I remember someone1 mentioning staff "having panic attacks" when using the SE network. Because they were afraid of the way people "greeted" (read "attack") them. Others2 were talking with community members and, even on controversial topics, always had well-received messages, conversations and exchanges. With all due respect on both sides.

Face the everyday duties of the volunteering community members, such as welcoming new contributors, answering, editing, cleaning, tooling (flags and so on...)

People work hard, spend hundreds of (unpaid) hours every year in order to build a library of knowledge. Some of us surely do that elsewhere too. I give time and (little) money to Wikipedia. They too need some money. They ask for some financial help sometimes. So we can understand it's an important part to have money to survive, but we can't make it our top priority or main goal.

Why do we do that? Share, build and help. We don't need to monetize our time and work. On the other hand, SO/SE wants and does.

Yes, we can keep building, but we need help. Tools. How many discussions on meta about the tools? About every aspect of what that community needs for the volunteers to work, come back, and stay? You're treating us like a worldwide fast-food chain would behave with their customers. No matter the bad food, if they don't come back, some others will, and will replace them. Too big to fail? Sure? Or one day, someone will ring the bell and say: this is the worst restaurant ever, and it'll spread around like a bonfire?

We can't be heard by people who don't know what we mean when we ask for something because they can't understand it. Of course, these people don't understand it because they don't use it.

Sometimes, we feel like we're asking for something intended to make our work/life easier, and that it's understood as time-consuming and resources-consuming. On the other hand, some changes are made that have a (very) negative impact on our work. They may improve SO/SE for the eys of future investors, but they are impopular for the community because it doesn't help, sometimes, it even worsens the whole toolbox.

Why, when we're disappointed/upset about some changes (that happened without us, the end-users, being consulted), why does SO/SE focus on the criticism instead of the heart of the problem? Do you think that hiding the problems will solve them? Of course not. We are not the problem. Modifications that are done the wrong way are. How do you realize they're wrong? Use them. Everyday.


1. I do remember that person, but no name-calling.

2. Don't worry Yaakov, Shog, Robert, Jon, Catija (and many others), no name-calling either :)

1
  • 3
    @Phillipe you could get a sock puppet on a site that you have expertise in.
    – MT1
    Oct 26, 2023 at 8:09

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .