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For nearly fifteen years, Stack Exchange community leadership has taken a very simple form: there is the community-at-large, and there are moderators elected by ranked-choice voting. This system is compact, it is effective, and it has served the network and its population of users well. There are many virtues of this system to respect, value, and extoll. That it has carried us to this point is a testament to the resilience of the original design decisions made during its early establishment.

It also has its limits. Over the past few months, the Community Management team has been working diligently to understand the boundaries of the systems we rely on, and seriously evaluate the question: will they carry us forward for another ten years? Stepping back from “moderators and users” - if you are reading this post, then you are likely a community leader in some form or another, and that means this question concerns you. Our central goal, therefore, is to expand the ways in which we can work to develop community leaders on the platform.

Let me be clear upfront. Nothing in this post is settled. Nothing is locked in, nothing is decided permanently. This is the beginning, a prelude to a series of discussions and changes that we hope will begin over the next six months, and beyond. Even then, we won’t be “done.” Leadership and governance must constantly change and adapt to the times. So please understand: any dates you see in this post are at best approximate, provided to give you a sense of scale and duration, and do not reflect a binding schedule or roadmap.


The Product Advisory Council

The Community Management (CM) team identified a key problem: Despite the best efforts of our Product Managers, community members often feel as though critical product needs go unrecognized or unevaluated; community members often feel as though their opinions on the direction of the Stack Exchange public Q&A product do not matter, are ignored, or are irrelevant.

The Product Advisory Council (PAC), is our first cut at a solution to this problem. The aim of the PAC is to place key users across the network in a position of advocacy directly with our Product Management team. These users would be chosen by a network-wide election, and represent all areas of the Stack Exchange network. The aim is for this consortium to propose, discuss, evaluate, and prioritize changes to the Stack Exchange network, putting direct influence in the hands of people the community trusts to lead well. They would also take over the handling of certain status tags network-wide, helping to order and prioritize the many community requests that the product team receives.

Discussion about the Product Advisory Council likely begins in late February or early March.


The Leadership Advisory Board

The CM team identified a second key problem: Network-wide governance activities are critical functions that many moderators faithfully facilitate, but no mechanism exists to make sure that it works well. And when clear decisions need to be made, no method exists to distill mods’ varied opinions into one clear position - the system runs exclusively on soft power. This issue affects policy creation and development, petitions and mediation regarding moderator conduct, evaluation of major changes to the network, and many more.

The Leadership Advisory Board (LAB), attempts to solve this problem by electing a small set of trusted community leaders from around the network to perform policy development and modification, advising on key decisions that the CM team and Stack Exchange may make, consult with the CM team and others about approach and methodology, and release key statements about matters of community interest.

Discussion about the Leadership Advisory Board likely begins in April.


Reworking site moderator elections and how mod status is managed

The election system has so far served us well, but it is not a problem-free solution; in this, too, the CM team has identified several key issues:

  • Elections always produce a loser and a winner; this system neither guarantees the fitness of the winner, nor does it guarantee that the loser is unfit for moderator service. And because elections are required to be competitive, all that is truly guaranteed is that one-half of the participants, at minimum, leave upset and frustrated.
  • Elections are in part an artifact from a time when Community Managers would hand-select moderators. The times have changed, but the system remains.
  • Elections are time-consuming to schedule, run, and manage for Community Managers, and this causes substantial delays.
  • Election appointments are for-life; communities can lose trust in their moderators, with no path to resolution, and the number of moderators on a site is set only by intuition and precedent.

First, we are already in the process of forming a working group surrounding election practices and processes (indeed, this group convened on February 13th). We are hoping that users who are capable of performing the role and are trusted to do so can receive that access more expediently and efficiently after the working group concludes.

Second, we hope to begin discussion about the moderator reinstatement process later this year, starting with a discussion around whether this process is working as intended or needs to be altered.

Further changes to moderator status management are possible - we’ll do deeper-dive proposals as this becomes relevant.


If we look too far ahead, then the timeline grows hazy. Many projects have been proposed, and there’s a lot we’d like to get to before the year is out (and beyond), but we have to recognize that what we think we need today may not be what we need tomorrow. While the following concepts are neither scheduled nor guaranteed to happen, I still want to give you a preview of what may lie in the future:

  • We are strongly considering systems to allow users who share a common interest to organize, formally recognize that influence; and in exchange, be more formally responsible for a certain function or role. This could range from Charcoal and SOCVR to visually-impaired users and folks invested in knowledge archiving.
  • We will probably propose an update to A Theory of Moderation, the blog post that centrally describes the role of a moderator on Stack Exchange.
  • Supposing that the moderator election process can be made significantly more flexible and expediently give solid candidates access to tooling, it is possible that the network would benefit from some form of lightweight moderator tenure or re-confirmation, and this would need to be evaluated at a later date.
  • We may draft and post experimental proposals for decoupling site permissions from the reputation system generally.

Thanks for taking the time to read this post. I know it’s a lot to take in at once - and I want to reassure you that we aren’t jumping headfirst into any of these changes. While we’re happy to respond to questions and concerns now (I am sure you have many), there will be ample opportunity to ask hard questions during the early discussions for each project we initiate.

For now, all I hope is for you to take some time to sit with this, and really think through the implications for the network as a whole. And, of course, if you’ve got questions, we’re happy to talk.

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    Tentative upvote. Hopefully these Councils and Boards would be more than just window dressing in support of "the community" while management behaviour goes unchanged.
    – miken32
    Commented Feb 21 at 16:18
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    "Elections are in part an artifact from a time when Community Managers would hand-select moderators." Hmm? If CMs were hand picking then why are elections needed?
    – TylerH
    Commented Feb 21 at 16:27
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    @TylerH That line is condensing down a lot of history - possibly too far... In the days of yore, mod appointments were done either by election or by hand-selecting pro tempore moderators. Hand-selection was both a fallback and a way to kickstart moderation on new sites. The original election process was designed with this hand-selection fallback in mind. But we no longer hand-select moderators when sites are not sustaining an election; now, elections that do not run to completion simply halt and try again later, or appoint the existing candidates in place.
    – Slate StaffMod
    Commented Feb 21 at 16:32
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    It would be good to think about how to keep SO from overwhelming all the other sites in a network-wide election. As someone who has been primarily active on a smaller site, I know there is some frustration around most development being focused on the trilogy's needs. It would suck if the smaller sites couldn't get any significant representation on the councils. It would also be unfortunate if there was too much overlap between these councils and the moderator community, which already has a pretty direct line of communication with the company to have their views heard.
    – ColleenV
    Commented Feb 21 at 16:57
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    "And because elections are required to be competitive, all that is truly guaranteed is that one-half of the participants, at minimum, leave upset and frustrated." - I don't know if 'participants' is meant to refer to candidates or voters: in any case, come on; we're not toddlers. But the other points are astute. Commented Feb 21 at 17:03
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    @ColleenV This is an important point, and one we've thought about a lot. I'm happy to say that I feel pretty confident the upcoming proposal strikes a balance here quite well, but it is (as with all things now and upcoming) a draft. I hope you'll find the proposal satisfying.
    – Slate StaffMod
    Commented Feb 21 at 17:08
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    @Scortchi I apologize if that line came across as infantilizing; that was not my intent. I do think it can be disappointing to lose an election for a position one is otherwise qualified for, solely because someone has to lose. "Someone loses even if qualified" is definitely the more salient point, but I wouldn't consider it at all immature or unprofessional for a nominee to be dissatisfied with that outcome.
    – Slate StaffMod
    Commented Feb 21 at 17:10
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    @ColleenV i think it's kinda silly to claim SO gets all the attention when the needs of SO have gone unmet for so long. Yea, we got collectives and discussions, and are getting overflowai, all things we've never asked for and don't need... Where's the review queue work, where's the mod tooling, where's the work on reducing friction between curators and askers/answerers, this is madness.
    – Kevin B
    Commented Feb 21 at 17:13
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    @KevinB I suspect you are not very active on other sites. It is simply a fact that SO gets the overwhelming part of the company's attention. I am sure it's true that y'all still need more and still (correctly) feel you're not getting enough attention, but believe me, SO gets far, far more than any other site. So if you are still not getting enough, imagine how the rest of us feel! To be fair, SO is orders of magnitude larger than any other site, so it is perfectly reasonable that the company focuses there. It just... gets hard for the rest of us to deal with sometimes, that's all.
    – terdon
    Commented Feb 21 at 17:25
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    "Elections always produce a loser and a winner" So does life. Not everyone gets a participation ribbon, nor does everyone deserve one. If someone can't handle losing an election, he shouldn't run in the first place. Also, if throwing all the toys out of the pram is a loser's response, I'd venture to say that this is a really good indication that the correct decision was made.
    – FreeMan
    Commented Feb 21 at 18:23
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    Speaking personally, losing an election is only a gut-punch if you don't beat the spread.
    – Shog9
    Commented Feb 21 at 21:12
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    @Tinkeringbell I don't even buy into the weird narrative that all or even a majority of the people who lost in an election leave that election upset and frustrated. Also, people win and people lose anyway, that's what an election does. You want a medal for participation or what? Well, we have that already, too. Commented Feb 22 at 14:38
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    Please no councils or working groups. They do much less of the work than they should and if they do something nobody knows if that's what the community really wants. The current way of providing feedback is much better. The only problem is that the company isn't listening anymore. Maybe they would to councils, but I wouldn't bet my money on it. Example: Moderator Council which wasn't a very strong voice. A lot of rules and procedures and effort for little to no effect. Commented Feb 22 at 20:35
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    I think the company should simply make up its mind how much it values the community and how much it wants to invest in it. The community can surely come up with another list of wanted improvements weighted by popular demand, but if company anyway ignores everything and implements only what it wants for itself, there is no need for doing that again. I would first like to see substantial commitment from the company side. If some users think that they can help the company by advising them, go ahead but stop if the company doesn't listen. I don't have high hopes. It won't change anything. Commented Feb 23 at 9:22
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    I think some folks are latching onto the "losing an election hurts feelings" line too much; the goal of that bullet seems to be that the election system isn't good at identifying or separating good moderator candidates from unfit ones. We use it for that purpose, but at its core, being an election winner is completely orthogonal from becoming a good mod. The competitive election system inherently requires a loser, regardless of how fit a candidate may be, because without a loser an election isn't an election. That's objectively bad if the system's true goal is to identify good mods.
    – zcoop98
    Commented Feb 23 at 20:00

31 Answers 31

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First off: this is an ambitious project - GOOD! There's been entirely too much timidity in recent years, too little willingness to fail in big ambitious ways or succeed trying.

A few notes as they occurred to me while reading:

PAC

These users would be chosen by a network-wide election, and represent all areas of the Stack Exchange network. The aim is for this consortium to propose, discuss, evaluate, and prioritize changes to the Stack Exchange network, putting direct influence in the hands of people the community trusts to lead well.

The pitfall here is going to be muzzling these folks (as has happened recently with attempts to use moderators for this purpose). Folks who are able to represent the greater userbase are most able to do so when they remain a part of that community, able and encouraged to share and discuss. The first time they're made to sign an NDA or given information in a private channel with dire warnings about "leaking it" before some embargo date... This effort will die. Don't believe me? Go talk to the current mods about all the anguished conversations about "shoes" over the past year.

LAB

perform policy development and modification, advising on key decisions that the CM team and Stack Exchange may make, consult with the CM team and others about approach and methodology, and release key statements about matters of community interest.

This is essentially another take on the Moderator Council idea, and so the failure mode is the same: either you give them some measure of actual responsibility and authority, or they become a group of drones with no clear reason for existing and eventually everyone just forgets they ever existed.

Also - and this applies to PAC as well - there's a weird tendency for efforts like this to turn into focus groups. There's a time and a place for focus groups, but... When that's what you need, you're better off grabbing a handful of gift cards and an email list; trying to keep a stable of engaged volunteers in the hope that they'll be more likely to respond when needed is... Laughable. There's a name for that sort of stable, and it's employees.

moderator elections

Elections are in part an artifact from a time when Community Managers would hand-select moderators.

This has been noted elsewhere, but... Quick correction on your history: moderator elections at SO predate Community Managers, meta sites, the Stack Exchange Network, and the vast majority of other policies and systems. The various "appointment" protocols were always efforts to, heh, avoid elections because they're expensive and time-consuming. Which is also the current motivation.

I'm stressing this not to discourage y'all from looking into alternatives, but to maybe save you some time reinventing the square wheel - the test for success here needs to be "doesn't cost you 100x in time spent dealing with community angst" not "is slightly cheaper than running an election".

And yes, that means you'll only know you missed the mark when a bunch of people show up with torches and pitchforks, then leave to start their own site.

BE BOLD! And avoid flammable body armor.

Second, we hope to begin discussion about the moderator reinstatement process later this year, starting with a discussion around whether this process is working as intended or needs to be altered.

Until late 2019, this process was fast, effective and stress-free: "I want to be a mod again" -> "ok!". The sole intent of changing that process was to keep one person from ever being a moderator again to cover up a mess of dysfunction at SO-the-company. Now, there may be good reasons to not go back to the effective process, but... If y'all are gonna talk about it, you need to go into it with that context firmly in mind: there's no reason to believe it ever had any other intent underpinning it.


Further ahead

We are strongly considering systems to allow users who share a common interest to organize, formally recognize that influence

Consider that this already happens, and always has. The biggest blocker isn't recognition from the company, it's blockers that prevent such groups from being effective: technical blockers, policy blockers, social blockers.

This is a huge topic on its own, but I'll toss out one example that is conspicuous by its lack of mention: reducing the need for Moderators to perform moderation. JNat recently posted 2023 moderation stats across the network, and there are more than a couple of areas that stand out as actions that don't really need to be concentrated in the hands of a few people but effectively are. The more moderation in, say, the [gmail] tag on Web Apps that can be done by folks active in that tag vs. one of three moderators, the less the tag - and the site - live or die based on the ability of those moderators to respond. This has been our goal from the very beginning, and in spite of an awful lot of work over the years it is a goal that will always require focused effort to keep moving towards - but it remains a useful goal, and certainly remains an ambitious one!

Good luck...

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    Thanks for this detailed answer. It's genuinely an interesting read - good thoughts as always. I'll acknowledge the risk, too. A lot needs to come together for this to work well. On the balance, I believe that we can pull it off (otherwise I would not have posted it!). You've hit the nail on the head w/r/t the failure modes of the PAC and LAB - I just made a comment to a similar effect in the Teachers' Lounge, actually.
    – Slate StaffMod
    Commented Feb 21 at 20:03
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    The PAC - In internal conversations, I've set the expectation that we should be treating the PAC as though they are a public group for legal purposes. Ideally I'd like to have a handshake agreement in place that the PAC members won't release anything before its due, but I really want to avoid formalizing that with an NDA or other type of contract.
    – Slate StaffMod
    Commented Feb 21 at 20:03
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    I agree that this would both cause a lot of discomfort, and likely make prospective members feel they are taking on personal legal risk for a novel and uncertain volunteer position, both of which are suboptimal outcomes. That said, the devil is in the details, and our lawyers will have to review it before this can become anything close to a guarantee.
    – Slate StaffMod
    Commented Feb 21 at 20:03
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    The LAB - all I can say this early into the process is that I am hoping the LAB will have a charter that makes the goals and responsibilities crystal clear. You are right: without clarity, it is likely to become a focus group of trusted users, and an aimless one at that. That lack of clarity can burn people out quickly, too, and when the people in question comprise some of the most trusted and influential users, that can be particularly painful.
    – Slate StaffMod
    Commented Feb 21 at 20:04
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    You're right to comment on the limitations for groups of users organizing. It's a long way off, so I can't really say much. Still, I hope you'll be pleasantly surprised to find that the proposal is mostly focused on lowering social and policy barriers between groups of users, rather than creating a mechanism for the company to acknowledge user groups. I believe the LAB has a potential role to play in the formation and recognition of user groups, and helping facilitate inter-group communication. Mod elections - useful remarks, and I will pass them along; not too much more for me to say here :)
    – Slate StaffMod
    Commented Feb 21 at 20:04
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    Your statement about the reinstatement process makes me so sad. What a horrible time that was for so many people.
    – ColleenV
    Commented Feb 21 at 20:06
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    "The sole intent of changing that process was to keep one person from ever being a moderator again" - I don't want to rehash old drama, but weren't there a whole bunch of moderators who left on bad terms and would never have been remodded under a simple "I want to be a mod again" -> "ok!" process? Examples on SF and SFF spring to mind, probably lots of others that I haven't encountered. Commented Feb 26 at 15:18
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    Hard to say, @Rand - there were certainly cases where moderators were forcibly de-modded for various reasons and later reinstated. The two examples you cite could have gone that way in theory, although practically speaking it would've required the folks involved to respond to emails. OTOH, I can think of at least 2 cases where former mods were removed for violating the ToS (leaking PII) which would've been a problem. And one case where the removal involved violating US law. So it is probably the case that we should have had a process for this...
    – Shog9
    Commented Feb 26 at 16:20
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    I think this post is good. The main issue isn't process or the number of things made "official". It's the attitude of the people working for the company who shape bad culture for the rest of the company, that means that seeing a good idea on a discussion on their own discussion site isn't enough to get a dev team to implement it. That is the problem, and no number of councils will help that. Council-making is the problem.
    – Rob Grant
    Commented Mar 19 at 22:04
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+100

I'm not fundamentally opposed, but I don't feel these necessarily are the solutions to the real problems in the network right now.

Most of what you're suggesting already exists; meta is the product advisory council. The only difference is that you're not dealing with a subset of users, but an aggregation of the opinions of meta users, either directly through answers and comments, or indirectly through votes. This isn't optimal, but it's something. Over the years, it has yielded a backlog of critical improvements so long you could fill a series of books with it and still not get through the entire list.

As has been mentioned much worse by you (the company, to be clear) in the past, meta isn't all that representative of most users. Many users don't even interact with meta, nor know about its existence. For many, the tag (and HMP) is the only way they see content on meta. Any group you form is likely going to be based on the same group of meta regulars - election or not. Without onboarding, it doesn't really matter if you do or don't implement the PAC; it isn't going to increase the number of users interacting with meta, and by extension, who provides feedback.

Representativeness of users aside, the majority of the problem has always been that the community proposes a lot of alternatives, and nothing happens. This is particularly in response to:

The Community Management (CM) team identified a key problem: Despite the best efforts of our Product Managers, community members often feel as though critical product needs go unrecognized or unevaluated; community members often feel as though their opinions on the direction of the Stack Exchange public Q&A product do not matter, are ignored, or are irrelevant.

That's because it isn't just a feeling. If you browse on meta.SE or meta.SO (as well as child metas, but to a lesser extent because volume differences), you will find plenty of highly upvoted and well-received ideas for improvements. You'll find similar issues with bugs and even feedback posts posted by the company. The problem here is significantly larger than you make it out to be.

More importantly, and arguably the biggest problem, is when this happens on feedback posts to feature rollouts. From our perspective, here's how many feature releases go (see, most recently, wizard 2.0 and the new editor; for mods, see also this mod team post for an upcoming severe mod tool breakage with a question that has been posed for over half a year):

  1. A Thing™ is announced, occasionally at the same time as
  2. The Thing™ is rolled out, optionally as an alpha or beta test
  3. Bugs are discovered
  4. ... only some of which are fixed (at best), resulting in anything from non-critical to outright breaking and destructive bugs lingering for anywhere from a few months to, more commonly years or never being fixed.
  5. If the thing was rolled out as alpha or beta, it's then released to the general public in a broken state, with many of the reported bugs remaining; see again the editor and the wizard.

This is the kind of behaviour that causes the perception of being ignored. Additionally, this hit-and-run strategy with product deployment has caused an incomprehensibly large backlog of bugs, that then never seems to get enough developer time allocated to get fixed.

Then there are promises of betterment to some of our long-standing issues that never happen; outdated answers being one of the more recent and very, very important ones for the continued value of the Q&A in the future.

We have been collectively telling you stuff like this for years - topics like these have been discussed since before I joined the network. I understand that prioritising is hard, particularly when the backlog of highly important and critical problems continues to grow with every new hit-and-run release of some new feature, but having a dedicated group that's likely going to give a mostly identical list to the posts on meta isn't going to change the problem. Ultimately, this seems to stem from a lack of resources, as well as questionable priorities from upper management. See, for example, the decision to put significant staff resources into AI, and deprioritising absolutely everything else.

And even from a communication perspective, the goal of the PAC seems to just be shifting the organisational work of bugs and FRs to unpaid volunteers. Yes, the community gaining more influence is good, but you could also do this by listening to meta, and taking steps to improve onboarding (one of, if not the single most impactful area for change right now) to both main and especially meta to make meta more representative. I strongly doubt the PAC representatives are going to go around a digital space to gather opinions from people who don't participate in meta anyway, so right now, it doesn't gain anything over

  1. Actually listening to meta, and
  2. Putting resources into changing stuff requested by meta
    a. ... particularly for large problems that have existed for years

The PAC would sort of, but not optimally, work towards #1. However, even without the PAC, the problem is #2. You can figure out a system where meta becomes a public prioritisation tool, but if you can't put your workforce where your commonly pointed-out problems are, regardless of who the source of the problem list consists of, nothing is going to change.

Therein lies my problem; are you actually going to put in long-term resources to make the changes we need? This isn't the first time we've been promised just one more thing that, pinkie promise, is going to start solving our problems, only for that promise to then be broken.

In fact, to quote Des (a staff member),

I'll take the bait, @YaakovEllis :) We are operating in a world of drastically reduced resources and that means hard prioritization decisions need to be made. The fact that this was undetermined for so long is a sign that there are people internally who are fighting to keep investing in it. By far the easiest thing to do (once it was shuttered) would have been to abandon it.

We have a lot of problems, and they need to be fixed, but that doesn't start with adding another layer of feedback; it starts with bringing developers back to public Q&A feature additions and bug fixes. From what I've heard, most or all of the public-facing projects have stalled and/or been quietly axed - including high-value and high-impact projects.

It doesn't really matter where you start at this point; start with one of the many, many highly upvoted bug reports or feature requests on meta, and you immediately build both some tentative confidence and trust that there is a path forward that doesn't result in yet another broken promise, and only minimal short-term betterment.

The value of the PAC is going to increase as the list of long-standing issues decreases, and prioritising becomes more difficult than "pick one of the many, severe/breaking problems and just do something, anything that can even vaguely contribute towards a fix".

But we aren't there yet, especially given the apparent resource shortage.

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    "here's how many feature releases go" for clarity, Zoe has shown these steps in a relatively good light. Often chronologically either 2. or even 3. is the first thing that happens, And 1. is second or third. The running joke is that you can spot new releases by the increased frequency of bug reports on Meta(s).
    – VLAZ
    Commented Feb 21 at 21:51
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    If we don't have the resources to help work with the PAC, then it won't go anywhere, sure. So let's assume those resources exist, or we'll be able to get them. If we do have the resources to work with the PAC, then by this answer, we shouldn't give users agency to help organize and prioritize outstanding changes to the platform because... why? We could simply use Meta instead? Honestly, I just don't see how time spent building working relationships between the company and community members could not be worthwhile. Yes, it needs to be done right. But it's far from valueless.
    – Slate StaffMod
    Commented Feb 21 at 22:47
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    Please understand that this proposal is a strong attempt to stitch the hole between community priorities and what happens internally during feature/request evaluation and prioritization. It is a synthesis of my and my colleagues' internal understandings of our working relationships with our peers, and how our peers want to work with the community (+ vice versa). It is attempting to strike a careful balance that could achieve long-term success.
    – Slate StaffMod
    Commented Feb 21 at 22:47
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    If your response to that is that we shouldn't do it, because Meta is already replete with things we could just go and do, then I am going to have to warn you strenuously that you are about to throw the baby out with the bathwater, and we will end up back where we started. For this reason, the discussion does not begin and end with "do better, listen more." Key processes need to change. I've accepted the possibility that this initiative might fail to produce the changes I am hoping it will. I would be deeply disappointed, but I won't shy away from saying that it is a fully possible outcome.
    – Slate StaffMod
    Commented Feb 21 at 22:48
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    But if we want to actually fix the core problem, we need to develop new ways for the community and the company to interact productively. We need to seriously focus these efforts on effective communication. So let me be very clear. The intended purpose of the PAC is not to blindly echo every unresolved Meta issue. I think this claim is rather reductive. If that's what we wanted, we could achieve it with a simple Data Explorer query. If this is the outcome in practice, something will have gone very wrong. Yes, the problem you're talking about is real - and it needs a novel solution.
    – Slate StaffMod
    Commented Feb 21 at 22:48
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    @Slate You claim resources exist. Can you quantify that? Who at the company will the PAC have access to beyond the community team? Will the PAC have direct access to the development decision makers? Is the company willing to commit an explicit number of developers to working on the PACs priorities? Because what that listening is going to look like is very much missing from the proposal. And at the moment there is a significant sentiment that you won't get the resources or you won't be able to keep them, so its a waste of time to even engage. Commented Feb 21 at 23:37
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    @Slate I will not be responding to most of that because I don't have the energy to get into more arguments with the company around an initiative that sooner or later dies due to bad prioritising, but no, that is not what I'm saying. I'm saying build a few bridges first, so any systemic changes you make are done on a solid foundation, rather than a shaky one where the system is built on supports rigged with explosives. Unless you've somehow magically stumbled into money, remember that 35.2% of the workforce has been yeeted over the past year or so. There are no more resources to magically get Commented Feb 21 at 23:55
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    One of the keywords in my answer is "hit-and-run deployment"; it's one of the biggest reasons many of your initiatives, projects, and whatever else dies. Resources are overcommitted, huge changes are promised, and when it's time to deliver and those resources don't exist, the initiative dies, usually quietly, and often after a partial, buggy deployment. Another major flaw is that everything has to be optimal before anything happens; that if it isn't done in a truly optimal way, it isn't worth doing at all. Commented Feb 21 at 23:55
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    Doing nothing to the system, but still starting to make changes to the biggest and most breaking bugs is indeed not optimal, but it's a solution that can be deployed immediately. Got any spare developers or developer time? Assign them to public Q&A bugs, and pick from the top list on meta. While that's happening, trust is being built, and the exact scope of the available long-term resources has been assessed with real-life metrics, then you can deal with the PAC without overcommitting and setting up another initiative for failure. Commented Feb 21 at 23:56
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    You have a choice; commit whatever available resources there are now to build bridges and optimise along the way, or refuse to do anything until the system is optimised. You're currently picking the latter option, an option that, historically, is going to take months at best and years at worst to get into place (assuming it isn't abandoned like the many initiatives before it), before any resources may or may not be committed to actually go through with improvements to the site. In the meanwhile, no trust is built and the situation remains suboptimal for all parties. Commented Feb 21 at 23:56
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    I cannot comprehend why you think that is a better option, and I never have in previous situations where other minor (but impactful) changes have been made but not rolled out, because they weren't big enough to fix all the problems in one go. Or in the words of whoever said it first (because the internet has misattributed it to multiple different people), premature optimisation is the root of all evil - and you're leaping head-first into that mistake for the nth time Commented Feb 21 at 23:56
  • 4
    @Zoe It's the end of my work day, so I'll have to leave it at this. I respect what you are saying, and do agree that more proactive dev efforts spent today could help drive home the point. However, I fundamentally disagree that the PAC is an exercise in optimization. Neither is it an elaborate way for users to micromanage bug duty. The goal is to cut an entirely new path to clear comms over platform changes. I am trying to see the forest, not the trees. I admit that is very hard to do in the current environment - and hard, too, to speak clearly about - but the iron is hot and I have to try.
    – Slate StaffMod
    Commented Feb 22 at 0:07
  • 33
    What are the devs who would be working on the PACs priorities working on now, since currently these bugs aren't getting worked on, why are leadership going to be happy with bugs being prioritised over that when they aren't at the moment, and what confidence do we have that any such devs won't be layed off or pulled away in 6 months? That's what we need. An active demonstration that the development leadership is willing to spend resources in those areas. It doesn't matter what you do, just so long as you fix something. Commented Feb 22 at 10:45
  • 45
    This answer really nails it. We don't need new groups to discuss anything, all the problems were already reported, described and discussed in detail in many Meta sites. You can also rank them by score, number of answers/comments, etc. SE already has all the data, they just need to read it all and prioritize.
    – hkotsubo
    Commented Feb 23 at 1:04
  • 3
    @Slate I am trying to reconcile the goal stated in the post with your goal stated here in comments: "Our central goal...is to expand the ways in which we can work to develop community leaders on the platform." Versus, "The goal is to cut an entirely new path to clear comms over platform changes." I will give props for correctly identifying a key problem (about users feeling that feedback is ignored), but I don't see that the proposed solution even relates to that problem. Why should I as a user believe that my feedback is more likely to be heard if we add more layers of indirection?
    – Wildcard
    Commented Mar 25 at 23:12
80

The current election process has other problems as well. The two largest missing from the list are

  1. Candidate score is highly arbitrary and prejudicial. I suspect that most users don't know anything about the candidates and often make judgments based on the score alone. Reputation is half the score, which is not a good indicator of how useful a moderator will be.
  2. There's virtually no focus on how engaged a user has been. How much has a candidate been doing with the review tools they earned already?
17
  • 7
    On point (2) - that may or may not be relevant at all - for a smaller site (like ours), review queues, etc., are pretty meaningless Commented Feb 21 at 17:08
  • @JosephWright that suggests that relative numbers (e.g., % of reviews completed or some other such thing) would be more useful than absolute numbers? Commented Feb 21 at 17:10
  • In any new system, Stack Overflow is likely going to need to be treated separately from all other sites; I believe it is treated differently already
    – TylerH
    Commented Feb 21 at 17:13
  • 10
    Your points on the candidate score are likely accurate. We intentionally left it out of the election revamp discussion just because we thought there would be some nuance with it and the possibility for it to vary on different sites. But we very much intend to look at it as a follow-up project in the future.
    – SpencerG StaffMod
    Commented Feb 21 at 17:18
  • 11
    Stats about the review tools might be meaningful if the review tools weren't terrible. It is amazing how much better SOCVR chat is than the close vote review queue. You get to scan question titles and choose which to review. You get to see how many close votes are still needed to evaluate how effective your vote is going to be. Reviews from others happen in a timely fashion (usually minutes). You don't have to deal with audits constantly popping up. Some of the users with best stats in the queues are robo-reviewing everything. Commented Feb 21 at 17:26
  • 30
    Not to mention that candidate score is based on all-time activity, which means someone can pop in to an election after years of inactivity and still look like a reasonable candidate. Not saying this happens, but as the site ages, checks on recent-ness seem reasonable to include.
    – Catija
    Commented Feb 21 at 18:21
  • 1
    @JosephWright That's fair to note (I guess in my editing I removed that by accident). The key, however, is that all sites need moderators engaged in some way with the community they want to moderate. Candidate score becomes less effective the longer that community has been around.
    – Machavity
    Commented Feb 21 at 18:35
  • 4
    @D.BenKnoble Not necessarily. It depends on how the community uses review queues. On (some?) smaller sites like the one I think Joseph has in mind, a high percentage of reviews completed may be an indication a user is more focused on badges than the needs of the community and lots of highly engaged users avoid the review queues most of the time. Users in some time zones may also have higher percentages than others because there's more activity in some zones than others. Reviews may be more hindrance than help from the community's perspective.
    – cfr
    Commented Feb 21 at 21:26
  • If access to site tools is 'decoupled' from reputation, does that mean all such access will require some kind of selective process? Or does it mean all users will have some access by default, regardless of reputation? Or ...?
    – cfr
    Commented Feb 21 at 21:30
  • @cfr Probably some mix of the current situation (rep threshold, but greatly reduced in many cases) and basing access based on use/experience.
    – TylerH
    Commented Feb 22 at 16:20
  • 1
    This is true, I had a super high score in the Christiantiy.SE election that certainly helped me get elected, but I was only coming back to the site with high rep after a year long hiatus. However, I think I've been a pretty consistent and fair moderator over there after the election for the last 8 years. So either way, it doesn't really show a whole lot. Commented Feb 22 at 18:23
  • 1
    I certainly never really know who to vote for -- the people I know would do a good job are usually already moderators.
    – SamB
    Commented Feb 22 at 18:54
  • 1
    @n00dles eh, it's not perfect, for sure, since one can earn a dozen "medals" and then be inactive for 10 years, while still having all said "medals". additionally... not all forms of useful engagement earns "medals". (the current solution relies on this + reputation, both of which suffer from this problem)
    – Kevin B
    Commented Feb 23 at 16:58
  • 3
    "Reputation is half the score, which is not a good indicator of how useful a moderator will be." This has been discussed at pretty much every single moderator election. The argument in favour of the existing system is that we want moderators not only to be in touch with how site moderation works, but also with what they actual core purpose Q&A is about. Additionally, since user moderator privileges are unlocked gradually through earned reputation, it becomes impossible to have experience of certain moderator duties without the rep score to match.
    – Lundin
    Commented Feb 28 at 11:02
  • 1
    That being said, I agree that reputation is otherwise a poor metric for moderator suitability. Reputation is mostly a measure of how active a user is. And at some extent also a measure of their domain knowledge of certain Q&A topics. None of which has anything to do with moderator suitability.
    – Lundin
    Commented Feb 28 at 11:04
64

Despite the best efforts of our Product Managers, community members often feel as though critical product needs go unrecognized or unevaluated. [...] The Product Advisory Council (PAC), is our first cut at a solution to this problem.

  • Where are version labels for answers?
  • Where are parent language tags for questions?
  • When will chat get even a single hour of dev time?
  • When will we see some heuristics to auto-block questions that include clearly off-topic phrases?
  • When will mod tools get improved to cover even 5% of the functionality that user scripts currently allow?
  • When will you sell SO-branded coffee mugs, t-shirts, mouse pads, stickers, etc.?
  • Why was the staging ground effort abandoned?
  • When will you stop using !important declarations, let alone inline ones, in your CSS?
  • Where are threaded/paginated/redesigned comments?
  • When will the ask question wizard be further revised? It has some problems, and could also be so much more powerful.
  • When will the new editor problems be addressed?

These are things people are asking for (OK, the !important thing is maybe just from me). Instead we have Discussions and AI search, and a whole layout redesign every 2-3 years. Feel free to take the list above and start working on it, no credit needed.

Will this PAC have actual weight or power in decisions on product effort? If so, which products?

The disconnect you describe is clearly that the user community wants to improve the main, useful product that made SO what it is (Q&A) and the company wants to make new products which make more money (and probably because making new stuff is often easier/more fun than improving old stuff). How will the community members on this PAC fit into that dynamic?

Second, we hope to begin discussion about the moderator reinstatement process later this year, starting with a discussion around whether this process is working as intended or needs to be altered.

Didn't we already do this in the last couple of years? What's wrong with the current process?

and the number of moderators on a site is set only by intuition and precedent.

Good! Stack Overflow, at least, needs like 10 more active moderators. Each site's mod team should be so well-staffed that at least once a week they should log on and find "there's nothing for me to do here" (I know that's already the case for 95% of network sites, if not more). Adequate team staffing is how you avoid burnout.

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    I would almost be inclined to say you are demonstrating the need for a PAC on my behalf. The list of possible changes to the Stack Exchange network is enormous, from small tweaks to major overhauls. Working on it in any arbitrary order is likely to lead to a disconnect between what users feel is important, and the work that actually gets done. This would, in practice, be very similar to what we have today: A lot of work to be done, and substantial difficulty understanding and ranking the relative importance of most of it.
    – Slate StaffMod
    Commented Feb 21 at 16:38
  • 29
    i mean... working on any of it would be a win.
    – Kevin B
    Commented Feb 21 at 16:42
  • 43
    @Slate So... the PAC is just going to repeat to the product team the existing bug and feature-request posts people already make on Meta sites? Maybe instead of a PAC, just make your Jira or whatever ticket names and their current statuses publicly visible, so we can actually see what's being worked on and when?
    – TylerH
    Commented Feb 21 at 16:44
  • 20
    A dark view on this is: We know nothing will be done / changed / fixed but lets try another diversion before they notice. Keep in mind that public Q/A is done as product and as such it only needs maintenance, just like chat.
    – rene
    Commented Feb 21 at 16:46
  • 7
    Truthfully, @TylerH, if your point is that the PAC's expressed interests actually need to be worked on to be effective - then point taken. But if your feedback is that community-driven prioritization efforts (and establishing clear lines of two-way communication about product changes) are just misplaced, I am not sure I agree. A group of users with whom working relationships can be built, and who can advocate for the interests of the network as a whole, is not the same as a public issue tracker.
    – Slate StaffMod
    Commented Feb 21 at 16:49
  • 17
    @Slate it's both. I'm certainly more interested in the former right now, but establishing working relationships is also important, but with that being said, we already had that, until the company severed those lines repeatedly. I'm absolutely interested in any changes to make communication more transparent, because that's a large part about what makes said communication more effective.
    – TylerH
    Commented Feb 21 at 17:15
  • 20
    The first thing the PAC should imho advocate for is an issue tracker... Commented Feb 21 at 21:17
  • 3
    I was really looking forward to using the answer labels on Christianity.SE so we could ask generic questions and get Catholic/Protestant/Orthodox/etc.. answers on questions and not start literal holy wars. Commented Feb 22 at 18:28
  • 5
    I’ll vouch for the !important thing being, well, important.
    – KRyan
    Commented Feb 22 at 20:49
  • 1
    @MaartenBodewes: I would expect the SE company's developers already using an issue tracker internally. It would be nice if the community could see which of the bugs and features from meta are already listed there, and which are ignored or classified as "won't fix".
    – Doc Brown
    Commented Feb 29 at 7:00
  • 1
    @DocBrown True, but I'm not sure what data is in there. I could imagine that there are internal discussions in there that are not OK to be seen by the community and everyone around. Probably there shouldn't be, but you know how it goes if it is expected to be company confidential in essence. Commented Feb 29 at 12:46
  • 1
    @MaartenBodewes: even if there is some internal information in the company's issue tracker, introducing another issue tracker is unlikely to improve the situation - that would actually result in 3 systems where bugs and features are tracked. I think TylerH's suggestion makes most sense (maybe with some filter to keep internal discussions hidden from the public).
    – Doc Brown
    Commented Feb 29 at 13:12
  • 2
    @Slate the only way I see that a PAC would be the most useful solution would be if we were in a state where you had a ton of developers available and they didn't know what to work on. Wait...actually scratch that...even then I don't see why it would be useful. The PAC wouldn't be able to tell the company, "Ditch the AI ideas, they distract from your mission." So at best it would be able to tell you how to allocate the small percentage of dev time devoted to the actual product. But you could do that just by reading meta.
    – Wildcard
    Commented Mar 25 at 23:17
55

Stack Overflow needs to open source the code base for the Q and A portion of the product. Then staff can switch from developing features to accepting pull requests from the community.

An "advisory board" will not have enough influence to get all the needed features onto the product roadmap. Stack Overflow does not have enough staff to implement all the features that should be on the product roadmap.

Open source is the only way to get the development velocity needed to keep the site relevant and working well.

The hardest part of making a product open sourced is getting the developer community interested and contributing. Stack Overflow is in the enviable position of having a huge developer community eager to dive in and improve the code base.

10
  • 4
    By the community is the motto, except that the software isn't. Having the community contribute the heavy lifting via git pulls should be a no-brainer. Bugs and features would "git" done at light speed. But if so, then this proposed network-wide committee would need to oversee delegates who approve those git pulls.
    – Jesse
    Commented Feb 21 at 19:01
  • 3
    It used to be available for git pulls with an MIT license: github.com/StackExchange
    – Jesse
    Commented Feb 21 at 19:10
  • Wouldn't this also enable a mass-exodus to a competitor non-profit? Commented Mar 25 at 20:11
  • Stock exchange has a huge? Library with amazing SEO. Even with the open content license nobody has figured out how to move that to a competitor. How the site works is not the limiting factor. Commented Mar 26 at 8:25
  • @JosiahYoder We already have a competitor non-profit: Codidact. While it's doing alright, any dreams of it replacing Stack Exchange wholesale are thoroughly dead-in-the-water. The only financial advantage the SE software gives the company is their Teams product (and that's now a fork with wildly different features so I don't think the main network software would compete with it on that).
    – wizzwizz4
    Commented Apr 1 at 13:46
  • @StephenOstermiller You get closer to the challenge -- an existing repository of questions. Is it possible that despite much noise from "the community" (us), there is broad support for the current site? Commented Apr 1 at 15:16
  • @JosiahYoder Search engines value reputation that they measure in terms of the number of links to the site. Stack Overflow has built up such an immense reputation over the years that it is nearly impossible for a copycat to gain any traction. It would probably take Stack Overflow shutting down completely, or at least becoming unusable for a competitor to swoop in. Commented Apr 1 at 16:19
  • @StephenOstermiller Yes, search engines make a big difference. But has there been any effort to serve the CURRENT question-answer stack of the CURRENT SO on a different platform? One of the reasons codidact has gotten little traction is because it doesn't have answers to most questions. But with content on SO being open, I'm nevertheless not aware of anyone attempting to repeat the whole question base. Is that off-limits for some legal reason? Commented Apr 1 at 20:57
  • @JosiahYoder What is duplicate content and how can I avoid being penalized for it on my site?. as for legal aspect, the user content on SE is CC-BY-SA. duplicating that content is legal if CC-BY-SA is complied by. but copying SE's logos and such is not allowed. also related: meta.stackoverflow.com/q/253906/11107541
    – starball
    Commented Apr 1 at 21:08
  • There are many sites that repeat the entire question base. You don't hear of them because they get no visibility from search engines. Commented Apr 2 at 0:56
45

It's interesting to me that the folks at Stack Overflow The Company are trying to create these new things to address two acute problems without looking at the overarching picture.

The two problems listed in this question are:

Despite the best efforts of our Product Managers, community members often feel as though critical product needs go unrecognized or unevaluated; community members often feel as though their opinions on the direction of the Stack Exchange public Q&A product do not matter, are ignored, or are irrelevant.

and

Network-wide governance activities are critical functions that many moderators faithfully facilitate, but no mechanism exists to make sure that it works well. And when clear decisions need to be made, no method exists to distill mods’ varied opinions into one clear position - the system runs exclusively on soft power. This issue affects policy creation and development, petitions and mediation regarding moderator conduct, evaluation of major changes to the network, and many more.

The first and second "problems" listed are symptoms.

So is the muddied-and-tried-to-be-forgotten Moderator Council, and so is the Moderator Agreement and Removal and Reinstatement process; which folks brought up the problems with when it was introduced. Heck, I'm pretty sure I'm forgetting a half-dozen initiatives that also went the way of the dodo bird, and are similarly forgotten.

The problem is that you don't have an honest and holistic understanding of what you want Stack Overflow The Company and Stack Exchange the Network to be.

You don't have a governance process that reflects that understanding, and you haven't attempted to create a holistic governance process.

I don't mean the Product Advisory Council or The Leadership Advisory Board -- those aren't holistic governance processes; those are reactive half-baked answers to a specific problem you see but don't quite understand how to get under control.

When Stack Overflow (the site) and later the Stack Exchange network was created; the social contract was pretty simple: The Company enables the Community to create the best damned repository of knowledge known to humanity about real acute problems people face. As the old slogan goes, You've got questions, we've got answers.

The community, in turn, promises to be engaged and to be as self-governing as possible.

Now it's become this thing where the software needs to somehow use AI to enable decision making for companies and the folks that rely on this for un-hallucinated knowledge are second to the reality that Stack Overflow The Company needs Big Returns Because Prosus bought them for too much money.

Until you have an honest discussion with the community about the role of product, community, funding, and corporate governance, and get them all to be on the same page, it doesn't matter what solutions you propose, they're not going to do what you want, which is lead you to a healthy and vibrant network for the next 10 years.

What I believe you need is a charter. Codify the expectations on the community, product, funding, and corporate governance into a nonprofit, and let that nonprofit foundation run the network the way they see fit. You should have folks from the community, product, funding, and corporate governance sides there; and give the community the chance to vote on whether the charter, constitution, and bylaws are something they're going to support.

In order to have the network and the product and the company work together, they have to be represented legally; the network ought to be represented by a nonprofit foundation that owns the IP and the governance for the public network.


To directly address Slate’s reply (in an edit, because comments are ephemeral and subject to deletion):

I didn’t state anywhere to dissolve the company.

Stack Overflow (the company) has several useful purposes:

  • sell access to Stack Overflow content
  • Improve the enterprise and teams product (and currently the public Q&A product)
  • Act as the monetization force for the software and network

Likewise, the public network has its own needs, culture, and governance that doesn’t fit under Stack Overflow the company. This isn’t just my opinion; it’s empirically true: in a profit-seeking enterprise, community is a cost center, maintaining governance for Q&A is a cost center. Employees devoted to community is a cost center. And sometimes, it’s not worth the effort.

Maintaining the culture of the public network and the value of the IP of the public network is inherently a partnership. The profit seeking enterprise that is Stack Overflow The Company works against itself because its short term desires for profit maximization invariably harm the asset that it’s seeking to draw profit from: the content IP and the public network that sustains it.

What I propose is to spawn off the public network content IP and governance of the public network to a nonprofit. In my ideal world the nonprofit has a royalty free license to the Stack Overflow source code and the ability to spawn new sites and any IP needed to enhance or maintain the public network.

Likewise, Stack Overflow the company has a royalty free license to the content IP, but in returns funds the nonprofit at a set level, not to go below a certain level.

In return, the nonprofit runs and maintains the network and the culture thereof. Community management, governance, and enhancements to the public network are managed through them.

This nonprofit has a charter, constitution, and bylaws that codify what guides the public network (including elections, new sites, governance via AI, etc.), and how it interacts with Stack Overflow the company.

Make no mistake; Stack Overflow would be giving up power over the public network, but they’d also be giving up the cost of running the public network. The nonprofit would be independent, and while there’d be existing funding for development efforts, it’d be up to the nonprofit to fund the running of the public network either through volunteers or directors.

The upside of this is for both sides: there’s no danger of short term profit maximization destroying the goose that laid the golden egg; and the company can reduce its cost center while having access to the IP, also while keeping the AI folks from getting their hands on it without remuneration to the non-profit.

11
  • 6
    With all due respect, George - I understand what you are saying, but if I had the authority to dissolve the for-profit entity "Stack Exchange, Inc." and establish a new 501(c)(3) non-profit foundation in its place, then I probably would have done something other than propose the above. We all have to work with the resources that are available to us. I can personally bring to bear resources that may help make progress, not a revolution. I will pass your message along to senior management for consideration.
    – Slate StaffMod
    Commented Feb 21 at 22:18
  • 16
    @Slate I didn't say anywhere to dissolve the company. The Non-profit would exist to govern the public network and the IP created by the users on the network. It would work with the company to do the things you're trying to do piecemeal with the LAB and PAC. It would have a charter, constitution, and by-laws, and wouldn't be this proto-governance you're trying to do without actually having a governance model. Commented Feb 21 at 22:21
  • 11
    Elections, Content IP Licensing, moderator policies, public policies, Area51, new site creation. all of it would go through the non-profit. Hopefully it'd get to the point where the software mechanisms for these things would be managed and created by the non-profit as well; but that's for another day. So, with all due respect to you, I don't think you "understand what I am saying" at all. Commented Feb 21 at 22:23
  • 3
    Leaving all the discussion about non-profit aside: upvoted because I agree that nothing short of a charter that gives a structure to the relation between all stakeholders will help.
    – ccprog
    Commented Feb 24 at 0:41
  • 1
    I think essentially - the company has been happy to throw the community under the bus, and cut down community resources to the bone when they fail their own goals. The core ask here feels like the need to safeguard the community from the wims and fancies of the current management. It's fairly clear that we have divergent visions of the future - I want vibrant communities - with the SAAS and other offerings benefitting from that goodwill, and the company wants a profitable SAAS product with less investment in the community. I think we're close to a decade of the latter Commented Feb 24 at 4:29
  • 1
    There was a short period where at least an attempt was made but there is still a huge disconnect and the company still feels like it doesn't understand what the public Q&A communities need at all. Commented Feb 24 at 4:31
  • 2
    You have some good points, most importantly the "because Prosus bought them for too much money" part. But IMO that's exactly the reason why your nonprofit idea will never happen - it sounds like lots of work without any new profit avenues for the company and a long time until potential benefits might materialize. While it would improve the long-term viability of SO, current "leadership" has not demonstrated any ability or willingness to deal with uninteresting things like that as they seem entirely too busy chasing BS hype topics such as LLMs.
    – l4mpi
    Commented Feb 26 at 10:53
  • For the folks commenting of wanting a charter without legal force behind it — that’s farther than we are now but still insufficient to protect the integrity of the Q&A governance model. Any charter without legal force is a whim away from being ignored, and that’s why non-profits are formed with charters, constitutions, and by-laws — they give legal structure and legal remedies that can be pursued if the non-profit board doesn’t fulfill their obligations. Commented Feb 26 at 12:32
  • 2
    Not to be overly cynical, but even after you (hypothetically) get your non-profit, you will still be fending off speculators. All it takes is sitting on something valuable for someone to (try to) take it from you. See the .ORG registrar fight. Commented Feb 26 at 20:30
  • 3
    They don't want to, because they are scared that if they are honest then we will all leave. And they're probably not wrong. So they have to continue to lie to themselves and each other about what they actually want.
    – OrangeDog
    Commented Feb 27 at 12:06
  • @Michaelcomelately And that will always be possible, but you can make it arbitrarily difficult.
    – wizzwizz4
    Commented Apr 1 at 13:49
39

Many of the 'failures' and places where the system has fallen short, is not really a matter of 'poor' design, but rather that the resources needed to scale a the system, and the necessary consistency and competencies somewhat undervalued.

And when clear decisions need to be made, no method exists to distill mods’ varied opinions into one clear position - the system runs exclusively on soft power.

I've handed in my diamond here twice, yet I'd hope that that in no way diminishes my voice here. I'd argue that soft power, and the ability to understand and work with communities, not as someone with a position of power, but one of earned respect is essential.

One of the reasons it's hard to distill moderator opinions and build a clear position is well, a good part of company decisions are made without taking into account community needs, and with folks with the ability to understand and communicate these needs bilaterally either being downsized or leaving.

I used to be a part of the moderator council and I've a few observations

  • a formal leadership team of volunteers is a little like herding cats. You have a smaller number of varied opinions

  • without the ability to make real change it is hard to stay motivated

As much as I'd like to say "I'm putting in my time entirely out of the goodness of my heart" - in an environment where many of the advantages and perks of moderation has been stripped away, and we've lost many folks in the company who've acted as bridges to is - I'd ask what the benefits are to someone standing in such a role - and how deep are they changes they can ask for.

I'd also add there was an equivalent team in the company side - the CLT, and honestly we saw very little of them outside people already involved in the community, so I'd ask what resources the company is willing to put on their end. Would there be an equivalent, and would 'hard' or even 'medium' asks get the run around?

I was pushing really hard for community hires before the last downsizing, and perhaps it’s a little soon, but the company needs to seriously consider that they need subject matter experts and folks with deep embeds in the community as much as sourcing as much of this to the community as possible.


Elections always produce a loser and a winner; this system neither guarantees the fitness of the winner, nor does it guarantee that the loser is unfit for moderator service. And because elections are required to be competitive, all that is truly guaranteed is that one-half of the participants, at minimum, leave upset and frustrated.

I've lost... I think around a half dozen elections. One or two on purpose. I'm pretty sure, at a pinch, even a decade on, at least some of those communities or their mods would be happy to have me in an emergency sorting things out. A lot of folks who lost elections still contribute to their communities and such

I'd say the original pro-tem and earlier "Oh, you seem ok, here's a diamond" system scaled fine with smaller communities or when you had dedicated people helping these new communities started up. Embedded CMs (or members of team CHAOS) would likely be able to identify good mods (I used to joke we'd have one experienced mod, one new mod, and one chaotic moderator)

Elections were supposed to streamline that, and moving that to beta sites meant there wasn't a need to hand pick moderators.

Even when not hand picking I feel like understanding a community and having the ability to convince people with the 'right stuff' to stand seems essential to building and nurturing a healthy new community

Elections are time-consuming to schedule, run, and manage for Community Managers, and this causes substantial delays.

Yeah but that is as much about inefficient processes, and the company often expecting the community team to do more with less.

I'd also note that plans to streamline elections by automation probably predates the entire community team as is.

The alternatives would need to be less efficient, work in non ideal situations and such.

Election appointments are for-life; communities can lose trust in their moderators, with no path to resolution, and the number of moderators on a site is set only by intuition and precedent.

Generally - if a moderator is having problems with the community, the community team is expected to step in, and in the past, one of the reasons for hiring moderators as CMs is they know how things work. We generally also lose more moderators to burn out and general... life than dishonourable discharge and community drama.

"Failed" moderators are an issue with the broader system of motivations, management and awareness rather than elections.

In theory we can request more moderators if needed, and there's a 3 moderator minimum. I'd guess the question is - have we situations where a site is lacking mods, or moderators have issues with the community as a whole, and why on the spot interventions would be less useful than changing the entire system in this case.

And least with one of my sites - Pets, that it’s for life, and they needed a moderator they knew would stick around was a big pitch for me getting elected.

I'd also add we get less elections and practically people generally being active for a period and dipping out, rather than (U)BDFLs. There's a day even I'll hang up my diamond on SU perhaps.

If I'm not holding up my part as a moderator and someone in a position of community trust, I'd think I want to be told that, rather than the metaphorical equivalent of a place in a nice farm upstate, or a watch and service medal cause "I've been a moderator too long" . Even as a moderator who'd hopefully handily win an election, I feel like it would be a further erosion on many of the promises made as when I first got elected.

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    This raises an important point. SO staffers used to heavily use SO, SU, SF, etc.. Now most of them probably aren't even programmers, even casually. So the staffers don't really understand the community they built anymore. That's knowledge that's sometimes irrevocably lost when you fire CMs, sometimes 2 or 3 at a time.
    – TylerH
    Commented Feb 21 at 17:17
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    I was pushing for that privately. Then the company let go of cat and V. Between that and Yaakov leaving I am not sure the company values people understanding the platform. Commented Feb 22 at 2:23
  • It isn't just me being 😫 over the loss of cat and V. Very sad the day I found out from V. Commented Mar 14 at 17:27
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How will the Product Advisory Council and Leadership Advisory Board be any different than the Moderator Council, which eventually petered out?

I'd posit that before asking community members to be more involved, the company needs to make specific, transparent, and sustained progress toward listening to and acting on community concerns.

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    This is a good question. The easy answer is “it’s not the same; wait until you see the details of that proposal.” But I respect the skepticism, and I can say a bit more than that. The LAB shares a common line of reasoning with the Mod Council, but (hopefully) learns a lot from what went sideways last time. Some of what follows is my own personal opinion, having reviewed the history...
    – Slate StaffMod
    Commented Feb 21 at 18:28
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    The Mod Council never got more specific influence than being, in essence, a closed space where a few people could provide Meta-style feedback. While useful, from the company side, this slowed down decision-making without meaningfully altering outcomes. From the community side, the complexity needed to justify the Mod Council and the bureaucracy involved was not par-level with the type of work they were being asked to do.
    – Slate StaffMod
    Commented Feb 21 at 18:29
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    The net outcome was that it was difficult for both sides to see the effect they were having at all - let alone whether it was a positive effect, or even whether the expected purpose and role was being fulfilled. The LAB and PAC will ideally have a lot more direct influence, a more active working relationship, and clear, key responsibilities. I can’t promise it will be bureaucratically simple, but the responsibilities will hopefully be broad and sensitive enough that it’s something one would do (and earnestly want to do) instead of being a moderator, not in addition to it.
    – Slate StaffMod
    Commented Feb 21 at 18:29
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    @Slate I don't see how "a lot more direct influence" is meaningfully distinct from "a closed space where a few people can provide feedback." What form can the "direct influence" take apart from written feedback? Unless the PAC are cc'ed on company internal emails, or have direct access to source code....
    – Wildcard
    Commented Mar 25 at 23:24
31

I started off optimistic when I saw this post, but the more I read it the less enthusiastic I become. It really seems that you're just masking the actual issues by trying to shift responsibility around, rather than actually solving anything.

What I am going to do here is re-paint your two proposals in what is admittedly the most unflattering light; I do this not to insult or denigrate, but because I feel that this sort of reframing is a vital tool in properly understanding things:

  • Listening to the community in order to figure out what they want or need is a lot of work; how about you choose someone to do all the work for us and we'll listen to them instead?
  • Convincing the community that it's in their best interests to act in accordance with our rules and policies is a lot of work; how about you pick someone who can just tell you what to do instead?

So yeah, I can see how these proposals benefit you and the company, but they don't actually solve anything. They're not reducing the workload, they're just shunting it off on a different group of people, people who the company is just… hoping?… will always be willing to volunteer their time and energy to do the work for them.

But it's clear that in both of these cases, the actual problem is that (a) managing a community of communities the size of the Stack Exchange network is a lot of work, and (b) the company doesn't want to do that work.

And okay, yeah, I get it: Work sucks. Nobody likes doing work, that's why it's called work. But… that goes for us too. Just because our community leaders are passionate about their communities doesn't mean they want to do more work. They do what they do because they love what they do.

I just want to point back to A Theory of Moderation, a foundational document which you have quite worryingly mentioned wanting to update:

We designed the Stack Exchange network engine to be mostly self-regulating, in that we amortize the overall moderation cost of the system across thousands of teeny-tiny slices of effort contributed by regular, everyday users.

This is an important fact to remember, and arguably the biggest reason that Stack Exchange has been as successful as it is: The bulk of the work, the bits that nobody wants to do are split up over the community. The theory being, of the tens, hundreds, thousands, heck even millions in the case of Stack Overflow itself, of all those people who are logging in and participating in the site, just one of them needed to be willing to put in the effort needed to ensure something gets done. Add all those "just one"'s up, and you have yourself a mostly self-regulating system.

And the reason they're willing to do this work isn't because we're telling them to. They do it because they want to. Because they want to be part of this community, because they want to make it better, or maybe they just want to help because they can. Everyone has their own motivations for why they do anything.

And everyone has their own limits to how much work they're willing or able to do before they're burned out. Passion can only bring you so far, and overworking passionate people is just a great way to make people less passionate about anything in the long run.

So I look at these groups you're proposing, and all I see is, why would I want to be part of these groups? Why would I want to distill other people's opinions so they have more say in things, when I would much rather just post my own opinion and convince other people to support that instead. Why would I want to set new policies for everyone, when I'd much rather just hang around with people who don't need policies to tell them how to behave.

But ultimately, I think the real question is: Why would I want more responsibility? If I can make a difference just pitching in whenever I feel like it, without some regulatory body hovering over me defining my duties, why wouldn't I just do that instead?

Don't get me wrong: I'm sure you'll get people to join, at least initially, eager to target their passion into something that can make a difference. But instead of distributing the workload onto the community at large, here you're just concentrating it on the community leaders, arguably the most important group of users when it comes to ensuring a thriving community: This is now passion and energy they're no longer directing towards leading their respective communities, and when they get burned out, you risk losing the keystones to the entire network. This is a far riskier venture than you seem to realize, and the company needs to be willing to give them both the freedom and the power they need to make actual real changes, changes that they care about. They need to want to participate, not just feel obliged to, and any attempt to control or limit or wrangle them into doing what the company wants instead is just going to work against that.

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    "I can see how these proposals benefit you and the company, but they don't actually solve anything" - if "listening to the community" is hard, and "listening to an elected council" is easier, then it seems reasonable to think that more listening will happen. And perhaps even acting on what is heard. :) Commented Feb 23 at 4:54
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    @SteveBennett Listening to a smaller group might be easier than listening to the community at large, but that mostly just reminds me of the old joke of the drunk man who loses his keys in the park, but keeps looking for them on the sidewalk because the light's better.
    – goldPseudo
    Commented Feb 23 at 5:14
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    Well, I guess you have a very pessimistic view of the representativeness of this future elected group. Commented Feb 23 at 6:15
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    This answer says it better what I think than I could. I think it describes well the motivation of the company. However, it could still work. Maybe there are indeed people who want to do this work for free. I know I wouldn't but maybe others would. And maybe the company who is unable to listen to the whole community at once somehow likes to work with smaller sets of volunteers and it works out better. It probably can't get much worse, so trying it out wouldn't cost much. I only wonder how the company managed to listen to the community 10 years ago when everything still worked so much better. Commented Feb 23 at 9:37
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    Free work isn't free - there's a social contract really, the company maintains our sites infrastructure, and we run those sites and happy users are enthusiastic advocates for the company. I think a good part of the disconnect is really the breakdown of that social contract. I actually think if the company could spin off the broader network without hurting their slightly shaky SAAS businesses they might be tempted to.They seem vaguely in the situation where they are in a cycle where they figure trying the same things again will work, without wanting to look at what made these sites work before Commented Feb 23 at 13:31
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    And as an optimist - maybe we are not too late but I don't hear the right noises for a period of fixing things right now. Commented Feb 23 at 13:37
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CMs should have been the bridge that you are proposing to build with PAC & LAB

Let’s start with an experiment.

  1. Please list all the tasks that you expect the people who are on The Board and part of The Council to do. Really, do a pause here. Take as much time as you need. Have the list? Let’s move on!
  2. Please go to a job description of a community manager. The CM team has hired some folks over the last few years so you should have it handy. Now list all the things that the team had expected a community manager to do.
  3. Now identify the intersection of two lists that you have.

I think at this point you can see that what you aim to accomplish by having PAC & LAB is what the CM team should have been doing. But the CM team was not successful. There are certain reasons for that. Internal company reasons.

You had CMs who were respected by the community, who were part of the community, some of them were even elected mods, they worked full time for the company and still somehow the Product Management team has failed to do what the community needed and still needs. Now you want to accomplish the same results with volunteers. My question back to you: How is this going to work?

All successful online communities are (1) open systems and (2) meritocracies

All successful online communities are meritocracies that are run by “benevolent dictators”. Since the beginning of open source and up until now people have not invented anything more efficient than this. You can easily google what was the end of all the attempts like PAC & LAB.

Meritocracies are, by default, open systems where anyone can take part and the rules are the same for everyone: if you want to be listened to, offer interesting and good ideas. PAC & LAB go against the whole idea of an open system.

I have no idea how to help you with proposed solutions since they look to me like a dead end. Especially, until the internal problems that have been stopping the CM team to be successful are still present.

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    "and still they failed to advise the Product Management team to do what the community needed and still needs" that's not the impression that I got from talking to Catija or Yaakov... you have evidence? you mean "failed to advise" as in "advised, but it fell on deaf ears, and so the message failed to be heard"? or "failed to advise" as in "did not advise"?
    – starball
    Commented Feb 29 at 19:52
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    @starball The problem statements of both PAC & LAB say exactly that. Commented Feb 29 at 19:54
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    @starball: You'll notice that neither Catija nor Yaakov (nor, indeed, Nicolas) are employees so they aren't serving as conduits between the company and the community. When I left the company it was because I saw the company expected the community to adapt to its needs and not the other way around. The best I could hope for was to bend product decisions so that they weren't pointed at the heart of the community and would only damage lesser parts of the body. It got better for a while after I left, but the situation seems to have gotten worse again. Commented Feb 29 at 21:42
  • @JonEricson the section of this answer post I was responding to was written in past tense. yes, catija and yaakov are not employees now. but the context was past tense.
    – starball
    Commented Feb 29 at 21:43
  • "Internal company reasons." That we will probably never really know, but it might not be the CMs fault. Maybe the Product Team especially on the managerial level simply didn't listen to the feedback of the CMs. And I guess that the CM department is always a bit short-staffed, so that there is never enough time for everything. "Now you want to accomplish the same results with volunteers. ... How is this going to work?" There might be lots of volunteers? Probably not, but I don't really know. Maybe available manpower was really the problem and it could be solved by "enlisting" enough volunteers. Commented Mar 1 at 7:41
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    @NoDataDumpNoContribution I think Jon Ericson described the biggest issue very well. There is a big difference between having CMs so the company can build what the community needs and likes and having CMs to make the community like what the company has built. Until the approach is changed no matter how many people (and what will be their titles) tell the company that the community needs are, they will not be heard. Commented Mar 1 at 7:48
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    @NicolasChabanovsky a comment from Slate on another answer states "The goal is to cut an entirely new path to clear comms over platform changes." So yeah, that sounds to me (reading it uncharitably) like "let's form a core group who can figure out how to make people like what we build." Rather than actually changing the direction of the "platform changes" for real.
    – Wildcard
    Commented Mar 25 at 23:27
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I don’t think I’d be able to trust anything that came out of these councils. Regardless of how well I know the users in them, it’s just another black box. I’ve yet to see one of Stack Overflow’s focus group iterations finish with any amount of transparency. Even Staging Ground, a beta where I participated and left feedback in chat, very little that was discussed/worked out in private made it out and what did was problematic at best… with no way for us to see the discussion that brought it to that point.

What is being done to prevent this from falling into the same pit?

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    I think the SG is a perfect example of a good, community centric idea that came from inside the company that was dumped unceremoniously for no real reason outside organisational ADD. Commented Feb 23 at 13:26
  • @JourneymanGeek "organisational ADD" good one! I am stealing that. Commented Mar 3 at 15:33
23

I've let this kick around in my head for a bit and read some of the other feedback and I am a bit worried this is heading in the wrong direction. I do appreciate that y'all are trying to solve issues in a sustainable way that involves the community. I'm happy to see it even though I think it's the wrong approach to set up user councils. The problem with this approach is that you're asking us to donate our time to the company and just hope that investment will influence things our communities care about even though other sites' communities will have competing interests.

I think the real solution is less company control and more self-governance on the site level. I know that gets really scary when we start thinking about the implementation details. For it to work the company has to relinquish a lot of control and invest a lot of development resources. Things will be chaotic for a while no matter how thoughtfully changes are designed.

Centralized control is a council that advises the company on what projects should be prioritized. Self-governance is a public bug tracker that allows the community to contribute, curate and vote on issues. We do this already on Meta, and it works pretty well until it has to interface with the internal bug management where we lose all visibility. The company doesn't have to agree to abide by the rankings in the bug tracker, but it makes a whole lot more sense to let the people who care about particular issues interact with them directly instead of through a proxy who might misunderstand or disagree with how important that issue is to a particular group.

Centralized control is a council to advise the company on network-wide policy. Self-governance is a few general network-wide policies (The code of conduct, the moderator agreement) and communities setting their own policies within that framework. I realize that there are some legal and practical constraints, but we should be working towards more flexibility for sites to set their own rules that make sense for their topic. Maybe a site wants discussion in comments and doesn't want to have to keep explaining to people that all that stuff about commenting in the Help Center doesn't really apply on this site.

Centralized control is having to compete with other sites for company developer time to implement features and changes because the software needs to be pretty much the same across the network. Self-governance is each site being an extension of the network's framework that allows the community to change certain behaviors without needing to write code. Maybe a community could choose to set a new value for how much reputation a downvote costs and see how it works for them. Maybe different sites have different ways of electing moderators (within certain constraints).

I realize that even these few examples of moving toward self-governing sites may seem impossible. I'm not advocating for any of those examples; They are just to get people thinking about what is possible. If the goal was to evolve the network to be a federation of sites that can handle most of their own specialized needs without needing much company intervention, we could figure out how to start breaking up the work into manageable chunks. This could also translate into a much more flexible enterprise product.

The most valuable asset Stack Exchange has is its communities. Healthy communities keep people engaged and donating their time and expertise. No amount of page scraping to build data sets for AI can steal that. No amount of money from easily-blocked web ads can buy that. The best thing the company can do is to manage them with as light a touch as possible.

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    You raise an interesting point, and it's one I've thought about extensively as well. This insight is also not an easy one to resolve. The degree of centralization in Stack communities has historically been very low, and I genuinely consider this to be a key strength. I am in all things a strong advocate for pushing decision-making authority out as far from the center as it can be placed. This sentiment might seem contradictory with the above proposal, and I agree it's not necessarily intuitive. Believe it or not, I actually don't like bureaucracy.
    – Slate StaffMod
    Commented Feb 22 at 16:26
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    There are a few key reasons why I still feel some degree of centralization may be beneficial. But before getting into it, I want to call attention to the fact that, in a certain sense, power is already centralized. Stack Exchange is a company and therefore a central entity. Ultimately, any changes to the network, and any changes to policies, go through us. I know this situation rankles to say, but solutions that divest the company of responsibility for the software, the policies, the processes, the options, the development - they are not likely to persist.
    – Slate StaffMod
    Commented Feb 22 at 16:27
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    It's a design constraint. I work with it; we all have to work with it. So, what do we do in this situation? If what users want is to have disaggregated options for expressing values and opinions, providing input to changes, really feeling like the place is theirs; and if what the company wants is to operate easily as an efficient, central organization that can affect the network as an integrated whole (set aside that we have not always operated as effectively as I think we could have)... these two needs are inherently contradictory.
    – Slate StaffMod
    Commented Feb 22 at 16:28
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    I'm not going to proclaim that this is the root cause of all our troubles, but it's certainly near the core. There are several ways of fixing this problem. One is to convince the company to give up its desire to operate as the central organization of the Stack Exchange network. Another is to convince the many communities on the network to give up their desires to operate as independent entities. Obviously these options are a bit reductive, but I think it's not controversial for me to say that neither option is likely to happen.
    – Slate StaffMod
    Commented Feb 22 at 16:28
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    Instead, the goal of this project is to create a bridge between how users want the sites to operate, and how the company wants to operate. In theory, both the PAC and LAB act as bridges between Stack Exchange, the central organization, and the communities-at-large, a multifarious collection of independently-operating users.
    – Slate StaffMod
    Commented Feb 22 at 16:29
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    I want to be clear that the proposal I write about above is not intended to strip sites and users of their sense of control over how their individual sites operate. It's hard to deny that it would be easy for it to have this effect, but I think the worst is avoidable with careful planning and design. If done right, it should be fully within the right of these groups to advocate for building out ways sites can customize and feel that their local responsibility is meaningful.
    – Slate StaffMod
    Commented Feb 22 at 16:29
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    Is this optimal? Probably not. Still, I strongly believe we can iron out most of the kinks early on in design. We'll have missed some, and need to update the design, I'm sure. Even then, it won't be perfect. Then again, maybe the project will completely misfire. I hope not - I've put a lot of work into building support for it - but if it does, we can go back to the drawing board and try again. But I genuinely do believe that by adding some amount of central community-driven planning, putting people in positions of direct and meaningful advocacy, we have the capacity to prove out real benefits.
    – Slate StaffMod
    Commented Feb 22 at 16:30
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    @Slate No one likes bureaucracy, but as humans it seems to be our first choice as a solution lol. I don't believe that the company needs control to run efficiently. I believe that it would be much more efficient in the long run for the company to not have to micromanage 200 communities. What is Stack Exchange's core competency? Writing policies or writing software? Managing servers or managing volunteers? I don't think you're trying to strip control away, I just think you're being tactical when you need to be strategic. Think regenerative gardens, instead of bonsai.
    – ColleenV
    Commented Feb 22 at 16:38
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    Councils of network-wide elected representatives are not self-sustaining. A community voting on their meta to change the rep requirement for a privilege, then changing it knowing they can easily revert it later is self-sustaining. What actually needs to be consistent across sites for the system to work, and what is consistent because that's just how the software was written?
    – ColleenV
    Commented Feb 22 at 16:41
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    By exerting more control than the company actually needs to meet its needs, it's actually preventing communities from growing and adapting in ways that might be more valuable to the company than it the direction it's trying to force them to grow. There has to be better ways to make money from a healthy community than marketing to them. The City of Heroes game community funded all of its servers for years through donations. Each month they'd open up a fund drive for next month's expenses and be funded in 1/2 hour with people complaining they didn't get a chance to donate.
    – ColleenV
    Commented Feb 22 at 16:53
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    @Slate "One is to convince the company to give up its desire to operate as the central organization of the Stack Exchange network. Another is to convince the many communities on the network to give up their desires to operate as independent entities." I don't see it that strongly as a centralization problem. Meta is pretty small, maybe like 0.01% of all users. Discussions aren't endless. If you ask me for the key difference between say 2016 and 2024 it's mostly that the company somehow weighted the opinion of the community stronger then than now. Otherwise nothing has changed really. Commented Feb 22 at 22:11
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How often will network-wide elections be held to select these special privileged users (The Product Advisory Council) who get to decide (privately) how the site will be "improved" in the long run, given people and the direction of the sites change so often? What influence will these people actually have, given it seems the company's priorities haven't really aligned with the community in quite a while? Will they be allowed to share what's being discussed?

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    (disclaimer: I have no insider knowledge on this) I would suspect it's an "Elected until you don't want to do it anymore" job, much like how moderators work now.
    – Machavity
    Commented Feb 21 at 16:20
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    This is a good question. I think an full answer may need to wait until we've shared more concrete details for these proposals, and therefore how we're hoping the groups will operate in depth. For the purpose of this post, these are just ideas. I do want to clarify that the draft plan has these groups' communications eventually become public knowledge - the goal is to avoid creating closed, isolated environments regular users can't see into, while respecting the need for privacy during early discussions.
    – Slate StaffMod
    Commented Feb 21 at 16:26
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I’m still stuck on “network-wide” elections. How many people are known network-wide that aren’t already communicating with the company either here on Meta or as a moderator?

I just don’t see how a small standing group of self-selected volunteers from among the most veteran users (because let’s face it, those are the only people who can get elected in a network-wide contest) is going to move anything forward more effectively than either the current mechanisms, or standing up temporary focus groups. You don’t need elections to get the people who are already engaging with you into a private setting to discuss stuff. There is no network-wide community. The network is too big for that. There is the Meta community, the moderator community, the Charcoal folks, a few communities centered around chat rooms, and individual site communities (which sometimes overlap).

I like the idea of adding features that support users self-organizing into network-wide interest groups centered around things like accessibility. Guilds in games are a good template for self-organizing user groups. They typically have leadership that can control who is in the group and what privileges they have (like the ability to invite others to the group), they are listed in a directory so that players can find groups that match their interests, and they have ways to push notifications to the group (even offline members). I’d join the “Quixotic Taggers” and “Touch screens, not grass” groups in a heartbeat.

I hate the idea of the company forming and running these groups. You will get more actionable feedback from a group of people who got together because they were interested in some aspect of the network than an advisory council of users who might not really know how to advocate for things outside their individual areas of interest. Very few (if any) people are intimately familiar with every use case that could impact the public Q&A product or policies.

The vast majority of sites that make up this network were created by users, not by company decree. Give the community the tools, and they will create the advisory groups you need and you won’t have to worry about whether there’s enough interest to sustain them or if you’re getting a perspective that’s representative of the people who care most about an issue. Charcoal is one of the most impactful network-wide groups of users we have; if I were responsible for building bridges between the company and the community and growing the pool of community leaders, I would be studying Charcoal’s origin story and organization.

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    I mean... nothing's stopping people from making chat rooms and organizing, other than it being pointless because the feedback never gets actioned on/taken into account if no one from the company ever cares to visit. I'm kind of surprised such a room wasn't created for curation of discussions, as an example. instead it's all hidden behind a private team because "reasons"
    – Kevin B
    Commented Feb 23 at 16:15
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    @ColleenV - Charcoal isn't immune to groupthink or a persistent monotone chant of 'we know best, we know best'
    – Richard
    Commented Feb 23 at 22:55
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    @Richard No system that receives feedback from humans is.
    – Kevin B
    Commented Feb 23 at 22:57
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    @KevinB I would like to see support for network-wide community discoverability, maybe a company liaison, the ability to designate leadership and control membership, etc. I'm thinking of the guild systems in games where people can find like-minded people to play with and communities can recruit more members. I don't like SE chat at all. I'd rather see user communities be able to use SE chat, Discord, Teamspeak, or whatever best suits them.
    – ColleenV
    Commented Feb 26 at 14:27
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    @Richard I don't think it's a bad thing if a user community has a very particular POV. I think if we had a hundred user communities we would have more diverse perspectives with elevated visibility even if each of those communities were only representing one view of things.
    – ColleenV
    Commented Feb 26 at 14:30
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+50

For nearly fifteen years, Stack Exchange community leadership has taken a very simple form

No it hasn't. There has been no such thing as "community leadership" at all. Over the years there have been various misguided ideas about who the moderators are and what their job is. Let us clear that up.

Moderators are not elected leaders. It turns out that they are elected moderators. Or peacekeepers/janitors as we sometimes call them. Their job has always been to enforce rules set either by the company through CoC and similar, or set by the community through community consensus from the respective metas. They do not set or dictate the rules, they enforce them. Do not conflate leadership with site moderation.

At most they can serve to keep community discussions on track, much like a moderator during a political debate on TV. Have you ever seen such a moderator push the politicians aside to suddenly state their own agenda, declaring themselves to be the leader of the people all out of sudden? No, because that's not their job and they were certainly not elected for that purpose by anyone. We would probably call that a political coup.

By no means were moderators ever elected to serve as "the people's voice" or "to (re)present the community's opinions".

But sure, they may be trusted users for sure and likely in touch with what the community as large wants/needs, far more so than staff working for the company even. So for example, interviewing the moderators before the next feature is launched might be wise - but only because they are experienced users in touch with the community and not because they are some "elected leaders".

So if a new feature has been discussed with moderators and moderators only before launch, you have not "listened to community feedback" at all. You have listened to feedback from a few arbitrary picked veteran members, elected for their suitability to mediate in conflicts and keep the sites tidy, but not elected for the purpose of dictating the future of the sites or act as the communities' representatives towards the company.

Demographically, the moderators do not represent the community as large at all either. They probably quite accurately represent the top-tier of users that are the most active doing moderation work. Which in turn is not at all the same thing as representing the top-tier of most active users participating in the actual Q&A core purpose of the site. Let alone the big masses/vast majority of users who are nowhere near as active neither on Q&A nor with moderation tasks.

if you are reading this post, then you are likely a community leader in some form or another

Nonsense. At best the people using the various metas are perhaps "leading by example" but I wouldn't even say that. Every site tends to have a small clique of users who are pretty much only active on meta and/or moderation, but not participating in the actual Q&A. And as such, they tend to be quite out of touch with how the Q&A actually works in practice. In fact users that were previously very active in the core Q&A tends to get far less active once elected moderators, simply because it takes up so much of their time.

Furthermore there's some myth that some users' opinions are worth more than others just because they are more active, have more reputation/badges or were elected moderators. That's not how democratic, civil discussions work. Everyone has the right to say their part and we should listen to them based on the merit of what they are saying.

As for your proposal - now you want to have elected leaders. Okay, we haven't had that before. New ideas are worth discussing - I have no strong opinions for or against that.

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    @ColleenV I didn't say that all feedback is equally valuable though, I said that "everyone has the right to say their part and we should listen to them based on the merit of what they are saying". That is, if someone has a strange opinion or peculiar idea, they are free to express it, but we (the communities as well as the the company) need not agree or implement it.
    – Lundin
    Commented Feb 28 at 14:08
  • 1
    @ColleenV "It’s a for-profit business" Ok how much profit have you made so far? If the answer is nothing, then the very least you can expect in return is some manner of respect for your volunteer effort and the right to have a say in things affecting your volunteer work for a private company.
    – Lundin
    Commented Feb 28 at 14:16
  • 4
    Respectfully, I don't agree with the premise. While it is true that moderators were originally selected on their ability to be patient and fair, respectful, and lead by example, moderators are the people a community will naturally turn to when they need to handle their most sensitive issues. They are, on some level, the trusted voice in the room. This makes modship a de facto community leadership position, if not outright a de jure leadership position. The effect of a good moderator is to earn and keep trust, so that it can be used to keep a community in balance. What else is leadership?
    – Slate StaffMod
    Commented Feb 28 at 15:17
  • 1
    Yes, it is true that moderators have some significantly more rote responsibilities than what I've just said. I don't mean to minimize the importance of the cultivation they can do for a better curation culture, using the abilities granted to them. Nor do I mean to minimize the importance of flags that are simple or otherwise routine. But these tasks happen side-by-side. Moderators handle these more routine issues, while leading the community towards a place where it can do as many of them on its own as possible.
    – Slate StaffMod
    Commented Feb 28 at 15:19
  • 3
    Regardless, we are fully aware that the purpose of moderators is not to represent the varied interests of individual users when it comes to issues like product design. They do perform this function from time to time, which gives me some trust that it can be successfully reified, but it's not by the current design. That's ultimately why PAC voting is not restricted to mods. It's for users. While it's true that the PAC may also be non-representative of users as a whole, it should be reasonably representative of users who have an active interest in the site. This, too, is important.
    – Slate StaffMod
    Commented Feb 28 at 15:19
  • 4
    @Slate "moderators are the people a community will naturally turn to" Turn to how, exactly? If I don't like what you as SO staff is saying here, should I flag your statements for moderator attention? Surely not. Should I breathe down the neck of the moderators asking them for off-site contact information. Surely not. Should I create meta posts directed to individual moderators that I voted for last election? Surely not. I'm not following you here.
    – Lundin
    Commented Feb 28 at 15:23
  • 4
    @Slate Either way, it doesn't matter what you think the moderators are doing, leading by example etc. If some policeman is doing a great job patrolling the assigned neighbourhood, keeping everyone safe and content, ensuring there is no littering or vandalism, that does still not make the local policeman the elected major to represent the community. Unless of course, they decide to run for office and explicitly get elected as major, under the premises that "if I vote for this person I want them to represent me and I explicitly place by trust in them to make decisions affecting me".
    – Lundin
    Commented Feb 28 at 15:27
  • 1
    @Slate Similarly, if I did vote for someone to represent my local cooperate housing collective in keeping the area where I live tidy, I don't expect someone to step in retroactively long time after the election. "Ah by the way, the person you voted for 3 years ago is now also your president because you trusted them to keep your local neighborhood clean." Wth? No they are not, I did not vote for them in that context at all.
    – Lundin
    Commented Feb 28 at 15:32
  • 1
    @Lundin I am not sure where the distinction matters. Moderators have no outsize influence in electing the PAC, which we hope will represent the community's interest in changes to the product. Moderators elect the LAB, which does represent the community's interest in how policies are developed and executed. This choice is not really because they are theoretically "the best representative," but simply because as moderators, they are the most directly impacted by these issues and are regularly the closest to them. Obviously, they should not be doing just whatever they feel like doing...
    – Slate StaffMod
    Commented Feb 28 at 15:33
  • 5
    @Slate Even if we put the whole "I didn't vote for you in the context of leadership" debate aside, then moderators in the context of the whole SE network are still not elected to represent the whole network, just a certain site. (Or elected at all, I see a diamond next to your user name.) Is it reasonable that a moderator from a tiny, quite inactive community gets as much of say as moderators on the biggest sites who were elected by thousands? -->
    – Lundin
    Commented Feb 28 at 16:03
  • 1
    Or lets say that we have a small but tight-knit group active on multiple small communities and this group really likes Jane doe, a prominent member of that group. So they elect her in as moderator for 10 different small communities, in order to give her a vastly disproportional influence compared to the actual amount of unique users that voted for her. -->
    – Lundin
    Commented Feb 28 at 16:04
  • 2
    Before you know it, you've invented an American "democracy" system where the only true democratic principle of one adult person = one vote has been replaced with complex systems designed to favour a certain group or party. Or more likely in the context of private companies that are managing a community (as seen in MMO computer games) - put up a cooperative puppet council through some sketchy "voting" system just in order to keep the masses complacent. Take the various moderators of meta.stackexchange as the perfect example. Who voted for them? I did not.
    – Lundin
    Commented Feb 28 at 16:04
  • @Slate "moderators are the people a community will naturally turn to when they need to handle their most sensitive issues" I never in 10 years ever needed to contact a moderator. I just posted on meta if I had an idea or thought something was wrong or interesting. I'm not even sure about how I would contact a moderator. Commented Mar 1 at 7:33
17

... community members often feel as though critical product needs go unrecognized or unevaluated; community members often feel as though their opinions on the direction of the Stack Exchange public Q&A product do not matter, are ignored, or are irrelevant. ...

I agree but I also think that councils aren't the solution to this problem. Maybe dive a bit deeper there and find out what causes that feeling. Maybe the company is not able to accurately collect opinions from the community? Or it is not implementing them? That makes a difference. Like for example: the community seems to be more interested in features that deal with outdated answers or the staging ground than AI powered search judging by contributions on Meta. Is nobody in the company aware of that and have the people on top of the company a bit lost firm ground and don't know what is really going on in the community? Whenever they talk about it, they rarely to never mention things that the community itself talks about a lot.

The problem I see with advocate groups is not only the increased upfront bureaucracy cost of that but also the prolonged communication ways. How will the councils determine what is community consensus in order to tell that to the product teams? Doesn't that require quite a lot of back and forth constantly? And would this yield better or worse results in the end?

Somehow I'm not convinced that the problem is a lack of communication. However, maybe things can still be improved. If you would need a clearer priority list of features that the community wants there might be ways to condense that more, maybe even with a special committee for that.

But I cannot really see where the leadership thing is going. If all the ways only lead to some sort of AI but nothing else, do I want to follow? I don't know.

I would say that it's time again for roadmaps. Please tell us in detail and in non-marketing language where the company is going in the next two years and where it is definitely not going and then every one in the community can decide where and how best to follow you.

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    Meta is already a focus group, It's only "0.015%" of the active userbase. I simply don't see any value in taking that group and further reducing down to the most vocal/popular. If the only benefit of creating focus groups is to create a safe space for suggesting unpopular solutions and not receiving the pushback from the community for it... we're doing it for the wrong reasons. Ideally such groups should be made up of users who are most invested in the things the group is for. These groups aren't for anything in particular.
    – Kevin B
    Commented Feb 27 at 15:46
15

TL;DR: You think bureaucracy is the answer.

Bad news for you: it's not and will only metastasize the problems by making it more difficult for people to do the right thing, ultimately chasing away the people who are most able and willing to do what needs to be done.

Processes and rules are not replacements for competence.

15

This is a tiny thing, but maybe also simple...

We will probably propose an update to A Theory of Moderation, the blog post that centrally describes the role of a moderator on Stack Exchange.

If you eventually do so, can you please somehow archive/maintain the old post, with its address, in a way that clearly indicates when it was "in force"? There have got to be thousands (literally) of links to that document scattered across per-site metas, many quoting it.

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    I would assume it would be a new one as opposed to an edit. There was vaguely a refresh by Tim Post at one point Commented Feb 22 at 13:25
  • 11
    Right, but you could imagine the company reasonably taking down the old one, or moving it somewhere that breaks all existing links. I hope to forestall that.
    – nitsua60
    Commented Feb 22 at 13:28
15

I'll be honest. Currently my main fear on this proposal is how the PAC and the LAB will be elected. I understand it is too soon to expect any actual detailed description of the process but... I will keep that point under watch.

I think you may already see where my fear lies. Any time you say something like "it is difficult for us to interact with all the voices on meta so we will turn to a smaller group instead" many "tin foil hat users" immediately read that as "it is difficult to interact with all the users pointing out why we are wrong so we will only speak with those we know will agree and pretend they represent the actual entire community.". I am not saying this is actually happening, mind you... just that this is how it feels like after our trust has been so compromised so many times. If you really want to go this way, make the process as clear and public as it can.

That being out of the way... let me add that I really don't get what you are trying to do.

Option A: a way to prioritize work

If all of this is just to find a way to prioritize work on the network, then others already said it better than me: it is probably better to actually start working than spend resources on talking about how to start working. There are plenty of request waiting on Meta, moderation tools that can use some love and so on... all of those would provide immediate appreciation should you work on them. But.. how you could do something when the company is constantly cutting down (or losing to "better opportunities") your devs? I have been keeping this a "secret" for a while, often joking how you "forgot to do something now that it is no longer Yaakov problem". I wanted to see how long it would take for you to notice... but this looks like a good time to point it out.

Every year you used to claim to "take down" the Winter Bash site "soon after the event ends" only to then wait until next year when someone had to start on the site because there was no "clean up phase" planned. Now Winter Bash is gone, and Yaakov isn't working anymore... Guess what? Winter Bash 2022 site is still up, and so are its API running and wasting resources for nothing. At the time of writing I can still access the site, see all my hats from TWO years ago and watch the leader-board. I... think you may get my point. How can you even hope to have resources for new things when you keep losing track of the existing ones? As soon as you killed Winter Bash, you forgot to bury its corpse and left it rot on the side of the road. I had joined the "GenAI site" out of curiosity. It is currently slowing fading away, its chatroom forgotten.

Option B: a wider project to help working on site policies too

Lucky I believe this is not just "how to outsource bug reports prioritization 101".

The Leadership Advisory Board (LAB), attempts to solve this problem by electing a small set of trusted community leaders from around the network to perform policy development and modification, advising on key decisions that the CM team and Stack Exchange may make, consult with the CM team and others about approach and methodology, and release key statements about matters of community interest.

The LAB role is described to have a wider scope to "help forming policies, decision making and so on".

This... leaves me confused. Sometime I feel you folks are going in two opposite directions.

On one side, the company is very enthusiastic about letting the communities "rule" themselves. Even if it means that different communities may end up with opposite views that WILL alienate users that will be unlucky enough to stumble on both. Sorry for my cynical view here, but I always saw the reason behind this quite evident: less work, less people yelling at you, less interaction.

I will take an example related to something that recently happened. The change about the sensitive content policy triggered quite a bit of talking around the network about what it actually meant for the various sites: should they now allow "sensitive/explicit" content in question? Did anything change from before? Or the change was just a rewording to match what was already happening? As an user, I saw no clear cut answer there. The only thing most agreed was that it was useless to put global rules in place because communities can self regulate themselves.

Yet at the same time this is the second attempt to build some form of governance that will help with global policies and rules.

And when clear decisions need to be made, no method exists to distill mods’ varied opinions into one clear position

These are Slate words. So, can I get that a little further?

  • mods are elected separately for the various sites (let's ignore that someone may be a mod on multiple sites)
  • mods elections are meant as a way for users to pick out people that represent them.
  • mods should therefore represent the will of their site.

So you are telling me that you want to also distill the will of the various sites (->site mods->site users) in one single clear position.

Basically we want each site to have different view on something yet we need to "distill" one single clear position? Forgive me... but this feel wrong. Utterly wrong.

I'll will give you the same example some users may already know from other channels. We have multiple sites with overlapping topics. It is safe to assume many new users will, for example, stumble on Movies & TV to the end up joining Anime & Manga or Science Fiction & Fantasy for example.

Now, let's say, for example, that Anime & Manga decides it will from now on allow picture based identification question of NSFW shows. Average Joe user joins and it is happy to get an answer. Later, they join Movies & TV where they meet immediate closure and maybe even a suspension. Yes, it is their fault for not reading the local rules. And to be fair, given how we were once pretending to be a "safe site, not a dating one" I think that "please find me some NSFW movies" questions are better off anyway but... The user will be confused because different sites have different rules on what honestly I think should be a network wide policy. Now, replace this made up example based on some recent changes with anything else and you may see an issue.

Riddle me: when do you think you have to make a global policy that everyone has to follow and why you think other things should be left to the specific site? Why some chatrooms would kick you out for swearing while I could point you to a few ones where swearing is almost used as a filler and should anyone dare to point out that gives them discomfort they would be told to "grown a spine or bug off"?

I remember shog9 talking about the "site culture" problem years ago. Not only nothing really changed, I feel you even made it worse by "delegating".

And I really can't see how you are picking out what you think you can delegate. To me it just looks like cutting costs while hoping nothing too big explodes.

Even if we look at this question, different views emerge:

  • some want you to step in more
  • some want you to Open Source the site and just be a silent host provider that only steps in to moderate plain abuse, harassing or other bad/illegal content

I feel that before going in opposite ways, you right hand writing policies while your left one tries to play "Pontius Pilate" and let the site decide if they want to have NSFW content or not you should really think about the role you want to have in the Network.

11

Let's take a step back and look at the interpersonal and inter-group dynamics going on here.

It's clear that the long-term focus of the Stack Exchange upper management is not in line with preferences of the userbase. The SE upper management is putting lots of resources into AI-search and AI-generated content, which the userbase has roundly rejected. The SE upper management is cutting resources for Community Management and bug-fixing and generally everything that's not AI-related.

Caught in the middle of this mismatch are Stack Exchange ground-level employees. They report to the SE upper management, and so must make do with less people and less time for the projects that the userbase cares about. But, as a result of their direct interaction with the userbase, and often their background as users, their preferences tend to be more in line with the userbase.

To execute on their preferred more-user-aligned goals, the ground-level employees need to convince the upper management that these goals are important and worth pursuing.

With this context in mind, this proposal can be seen as a request from SE ground-level employees for assistance from volunteers from the userbase in convincing the upper management that more-user-aligned goals are worth pursuing.

Currently, many more-user-aligned goals are only communicated from users to SE in the form of Meta posts. These are effective for communicating the goals to ground-level employees, but not effective at convincing upper management to prioritize these goals. Ground-level employees need help presenting more-user-aligned goals in ways that will convince upper management. The PAC and the LAB should be designed to provide this help.

The purpose of the PAC and the LAB should be to take concerns that users care about, and aid SE ground-level employees in communicating the importance of these goals to SE upper management, with the goal of increasing the resource allocation of SE towards these goals.

For instance, these groups could work with SE ground-level employees to craft proposals, presentations, and other content of that nature that those ground-level employees can use to convince SE upper management to shift priorities towards these goals.

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  • 4
    I like this answer; it articulates some of the ideas bouncing around my head when I wrote my own. I think it's really helpful to remember that basically any company of moderate size (or larger) has to deal with the problems of reconciling the high-level company views with "ground-level" ideas and needs... and Stack is no different. It's genuinely tough to solve (and seemingly pretty hard for folks sympathize with from the outside). I hope this initiative helps bridge the gap.
    – zcoop98
    Commented Mar 7 at 0:06
11

Some thoughts on your take on Moderators and Elections:

Elections always produce a loser and a winner; this system neither guarantees the fitness of the winner, nor does it guarantee that the loser is unfit for moderator service. And because elections are required to be competitive, all that is truly guaranteed is that one-half of the participants, at minimum, leave upset and frustrated.

Yes, elections produce a winner and most likely losers. Does this mean they are actually losers? No. It means the winner is the person who the community has put their trust in to be the moderator. If the so called loser leaves upset or frustrated, I'd suggest that is a personal problem which maybe they need to go seek professional help for, because in life there are always winners and losers ... it's something we have to deal with on a regular basis. If someone gets upset or frustrated about losing, they probably don't have what it takes to be in the position in the first place. It isn't the election which causes the problem, it's the loser's thin skin. I've competed in several elections since I got my diamond on Mechanics and have lost them all. Was I upset or frustrated with any of these events? Nope. Not even close. It's a realization that the person (or people) who were elected got there because the community at large found them to be more deserving. Is it something I should have been upset about? Absolutely not.

Elections are in part an artifact from a time when Community Managers would hand-select moderators. The times have changed, but the system remains.

While the elections may come from the same time as when moderators were hand selected, does that mean they are wrong or outdated? When working on cars I have a philosophy which I hold to: If it ain't broke, don't fix it. While elections may have been around for a while, it doesn't mean they don't work (yes, double negative).

Elections are time-consuming to schedule, run, and manage for Community Managers, and this causes substantial delays.

I agree it takes some time to do elections. Maybe we could look at streamlining them somewhat? From my point of view, while CMs do have to manage an election, it seems to me the elections pretty much run themselves. Most all of the messages the CMs produce to run the elections are canned messages which only need to be tweaked for each particular election. The time which is put into the elections seems trivial from the standpoint of once the election is done, the CM can go back to whatever cave they came out of and the management team on any given Stack then goes about their business of providing free labor so SO/SE can do whatever they do behind the scenes. It seems like a small price to pay.

Election appointments are for-life; communities can lose trust in their moderators, with no path to resolution, and the number of moderators on a site is set only by intuition and precedent.

No path to resolution? I would beg to differ with you. If a moderator steps out of bounds and behaves poorly for whatever Stack they are helping to manage, their diamond is removed and they go back to being a regular citizen. There is a process and I've seen it happen. The other moderators can contact the CM and make something happen. The community can make something happen through the same basic process. It's not like once elected it's a dead end for the Stack.

I don't see it as intuition or precedent selecting the amount of moderators per Stack. On Mechanics we've had three moderators since I've been around. It's a good number and (to my knowledge) usually the minimum for any given Stack (and yes, this could be said to be "precedence", but does that make it wrong?). CMs have come around before asking if we need a fourth mod and we've declined because our workload really isn't that large. It is easily handled by the three of us. That's is neither intuition and precedent. It's a matter of what is needed for the Stack.

I make this in answer to what is said not because I want to stand in the way of change. I state these things because what is written seems more like knee-jerk reactions and commentary without any real thought involved. If there are real reasons to make changes, then by all means make changes. The reasons give why changes are being considered in the first place (in the area of moderators and elections) seems like someone is creating a narrative which doesn't exist (in my mind). They want it to change for whatever reason and maybe they aren't being forthright about those reasons and just paying it to lip service so they can proceed without any real justification. Don't change things because you feel it needs to be changed. Change it because you have no other recourse. To change it just because you want to will only create more animosity amongst the patrons, which will mean you will continue to lose patrons as well as good moderators who have been doing the job for free all these many years of SE/SO existence.

6
  • Nitpick: Anyone who loses their mod status becomes a "regular user" not a regular citizen. Commented Mar 14 at 10:58
  • 2
    @Mari-LouAСлаваУкраїні - It was a play on words from the movie Starship Troopers. Regardless, the one who loses their diamond becomes like anyone else with the emphasis on "regular" as opposed to being a moderator. Commented Mar 14 at 11:39
  • 1
    How could I have missed that reference from a '90s movie?! Commented Mar 14 at 11:42
  • @Mari-LouAСлаваУкраїні - Would you like to know more?
    – Richard
    Commented Apr 1 at 15:50
  • @Richard No thanks. It's too late for me, I'm not 12 any more. I'm even older than fifty-aaarggh! I wonder though if "regular citizens" is a catchphrase from that movie. It doesn't look like it. Commented Apr 1 at 16:03
  • @Mari-LouAСлаваУкраїні - No "regular" is not ... like I said, it is a play on words. Didn't Jonny Rico say, "I think I got what it takes to be a Citizen." ... well, at least in the movie. It's been too long since I read the book, lol. Commented Apr 1 at 17:32
10

Recalls for Moderators

One-site moderator here with my two cents...

Let's say, if moderators needed to run again for every election, they are more likely to do a "popularity contest" and "too-soft" job so as not to offend anyone. We don't want moderators to become politicians and only "voting present" on every flagged comment.

The "moderator for life" model has prevented this effectively. But, it came with its own problems:

Election appointments are for-life; communities can lose trust in their moderators, with no path to resolution...

So, some model of for-life with recall options could be a consideration. Recall petition is the first thought because it is time tested with other "election" systems throughout the world, but I think the specific workflow needs to be discussed by the proposed network-wide committee.

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  • 10
    It's an interesting thought. I'll have to mull this one over. At first blush I'm a bit a bit trepidatious about creating public process for recall elections, because mod positions are ultimately volunteer positions. (Anecdote, but I know that in general, I'd rather quit than face a recall election as a moderator, even if I felt confident I'd win.) In most situations where a mod would need to be proactively removed, it's because they have done something serious enough to warrant a Conduct Review - and this must be handled privately, with discretion.
    – Slate StaffMod
    Commented Feb 21 at 19:11
  • 5
    Still, I can see the value in users being able to express via some means that they just aren't as comfortable with their leadership as when they were originally elected. It definitely isn't something that exists today, unless something has gone seriously off the rails.
    – Slate StaffMod
    Commented Feb 21 at 19:12
  • Hmmm... A recall could start as petition needing enough "sign-ons" out of the site's total active users, then go to that network-wide committee for approval, then put to a vote back on the site. Maybe? Solid opinions are out of my league, just a discussion idea.
    – Jesse
    Commented Feb 21 at 19:16
  • 3
    i mean, ideally, a CM would come along and investigate/take steps to figure out what's going wrong within the given community and do something about it, whether it be pushing the mods to communicate more or pushing a mod to resign.... rather than resorting to a recall vote.
    – Kevin B
    Commented Feb 21 at 19:30
  • 4
    Maybe there just needs to be a better way to express dissatisfaction with the job the mod team is doing. Maybe a system to give the mod team private anonymized feedback. It would have to be aggregated/paraphrased by the CM team, I think, not just have the account name removed. This way CM team knows who the feedback is from to prevent abuse, the mod team might feel less defensive because it's less of a confrontation, and the CMs know if the complaints are numerous enough to merit action This gives the mod team a chance to address the problems before they escalate to replacing a mod.
    – ColleenV
    Commented Feb 21 at 19:32
  • 2
    site-based satisfaction surveys could be a fairly direct way to measure sentiment.
    – Kevin B
    Commented Feb 21 at 19:34
  • I'm not even advocating the idea, only presenting it for discussion. It needs to come up sooner or later, better be sooner with no time like the present.
    – Jesse
    Commented Feb 21 at 22:10
  • the solution to moderators becoming detached from the community isn't a recall. Most of the userbase eligible to vote doesn't know the person/user, just as much they don't know the person/user when it's time to vote them into office. The solution is to set actual minimum standards of duty that go beyond a token "handle 3 NLN comment flags every six months". If a mod doesn't handle flags, doesn't participate in Meta, doesn't stick their nose in mod chats for years, why are they allowed to keep the diamond? Revoke it and they day they decide to come back they can apply for reinstatement
    – blackgreen
    Commented Feb 22 at 1:01
  • @blackgreen that is about basic inactivity, which is some-to-none addressed already. My quote from the main question is about issues beyond that. Moderator activity can be seen in ways other than anonymous mod messages and flag handling, which is where that lost trust would originate.
    – Jesse
    Commented Feb 22 at 1:04
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    @KevinB most people don't see what mods do unless they leave a comment with their mod action (you can look at post history page, but many don't know that). I think it would need to be more like discussions of specific, visible issues.
    – starball
    Commented Feb 22 at 9:41
  • @ColleenV a system to give the mod team private anonymized feedback, so the mods can read it and attempt improvements before too much escalation. Nice.
    – Jesse
    Commented Feb 22 at 14:24
  • 1
    @starball The contact form is for complaints about abuses of power, not for just general "I want to give my mod team feedback but I don't want them to know who it's from". There may be a better way to anonymize the feedback than sending it through the CM team. I don't think a general site survey would be all that useful, because it doesn't really capture anonymous actionable feedback. I can't even give you a real example of the type of feedback I'm thinking of, because I don't want the mod that might read it to feel attacked. I'm comfortable giving that feedback directly; not everyone is.
    – ColleenV
    Commented Feb 26 at 13:55
  • 1
    @Jesse what SO needs is the mods having the freedom to properly handle AI/LLM flags. The lack of this is why several very active mods have stepped away and why there are 7k+ unhandled flags. Adding more mods won't suddenly make that 7k number go down unless those flags are just mass declined.
    – Kevin B
    Commented Feb 26 at 16:31
  • 2
    @Jesse that's literally a requirement here as well, one must cite sources, including AI, when wholesale copying content from a source to here. That's always been the policy. Having the policy hasn't been a solution for the same reason amazon.com is riddled with AI generated product names and descriptions.
    – Kevin B
    Commented Mar 2 at 17:09
  • 1
    No, there's just plenty of notes along the way pointing out the ban. A radio button will never happen.
    – Kevin B
    Commented Mar 3 at 1:58
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I like the idea. After having been involved in the Mod Council, what I see as the biggest fatal flaw is being avoided. Not only are these efforts being opened up to wider community membership, but there are initial stabs are scoping and definition that will need to be refined by potential members and then even members as these ideas launch.

However, I think there are questions to be answered. Many are going to be involved in the detailed discussions of each group that kick off over the 6-8 weeks. However, I do think there's one fundamental question that needs to be addressed first:

What is the relationship between the Product Advisory Council and the Leadership Advisory Board?

I see an iterative feedback loop between the abstract goals and objectives that policies support, the product changes that need to support those policies, the concrete policies themselves, and detailed guidance or instructions on how to use the product to support or enforce the policies. What are the mechanisms for ensuring that the policies developed and modified by the LAB are properly supported by the tools built into the product through advice from the PAC? Or will the LAB have some level of input into changes to the network product.

Going into this with the idea that there are going to be two distinct groups - a PAC and a LAB - may be an incorrect assumption to start with. Launching a working group without a more detailed discussion of the fundamental problems may also be a poor choice - the working group to improve moderator election practices may want to derive its scope from the PAC and LAB (or whatever they end up looking like) rather than launching before the larger groups are in place.

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    Really good question! Nearly all of the time, I expect the scopes of these two groups to be disjoint - the LAB focused on policy/process and the PAC focused on product. But you're right, there are almost definitely situations in which a change requires cross-collaboration between the two groups. Exceptional situations to be sure, but impactful ones when they happen.
    – Slate StaffMod
    Commented Feb 21 at 21:17
  • 2
    I can't say too much this early in the process, since the devil really is in the details. But here is what I'm envisioning. In situations where both policy and product need to change in conjunction to service some broader need, I think it's fair to say these two groups (LAB and PAC) can and should work with each other. Nothing in principle should prevent this, exceptions aside. I'd hope that we reach and end state where the two groups trust each other to manage their domains of knowledge appropriately, and advise each other too.
    – Slate StaffMod
    Commented Feb 21 at 21:18
  • 1
    On the other hand, it's worth keeping in mind that the PAC's role is not to create binding obligations to change parts of the site. They'd need to work with Product Management to figure out scope, timeline, and attainability. And if we are looking at such a significant/exceptional rollout, CMs are almost certainly directly hands-on as facilitators, and we would of course be working with Product Managers ourselves too.
    – Slate StaffMod
    Commented Feb 21 at 21:18
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    @Slate This all makes sense. But it's strange to start with the assumption that there will be two groups. Why? Maybe these two groups are so closely related that people say they should be one. That would eliminate the issues with focus and having to collaborate. Especially since I think the need to coordinate and collaborate will be far more frequent than exceptional situations. Commented Feb 21 at 21:52
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    I've been mulling this one over, and I have to say it's a good question. I've been examining my thought process here and still feel strongly that two boards is the correct approach, but I'm having trouble putting it into words - clearly something for me to go think on...
    – Slate StaffMod
    Commented Feb 21 at 22:56
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    (The easy answer, of course, is that policy/process is an enormous specialization, and product development is its own completely separate and enormous specialization. But that's a copout and leaves me feeling like I'm grasping at a more insightful answer.)
    – Slate StaffMod
    Commented Feb 21 at 22:59
  • @Slate Yeah. I agree that it's a specialization from the people who do this for a living - product managers, community managers, lawyers. But when it comes to soliciting feedback from a group of key stakeholders in the platform that the product is and the policies are for? I'm not sure that it's that different. Something to dig deeper into over the next few weeks, I think. But I'd just be hesitant to close the door on it without feedback from other people in the community. Commented Feb 22 at 0:23
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    A fair point, honestly. I'll keep it in mind - very possible you are right, and I've missed something significant. Curious to hear if your thoughts on the topic change over the next few weeks, too.
    – Slate StaffMod
    Commented Feb 22 at 0:46
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The Leadership Advisory Board (LAB), attempts to solve this problem by electing a small set of trusted community leaders from around the network to perform policy development and modification, advising on key decisions that the CM team and Stack Exchange may make, consult with the CM team and others about approach and methodology, and release key statements about matters of community interest.

And what if you insist on a policy modification that the LAB won't support, because the community they represent won't support it? Will the LAB still be forced to release those "key statements" about the policy modification? Sorry for being so cynical, but it sounds like a really smooth way to get someone else to be the messenger of bad news and get shot in a CM's place.


Elections always produce a loser and a winner

Really? In actual practice? Or in actual possibility?


Election appointments are for-life; communities can lose trust in their moderators, with no path to resolution

What? What about What recourse do I have if I believe a moderator has abused their privileges?


We are strongly considering systems to allow users who share a common interest to organize, formally recognize that influence; and in exchange, be more formally responsible for a certain function or role

Calls to mind Is Stack Exchange in violation of New York labor law, in using volunteer moderators?


We may draft and post experimental proposals for decoupling site permissions from the reputation system generally.

Sounds interesting. I'll keep my eyes peeled. I'm personally fan of the flagging privilege's model where you get more daily flags to cast the more helpful flags you've cast. I like that it allows you to contribute at quite a low rep threshold, starts you slow, with a tight feedback loop, and then you slowly earn trust. I'd even like to see daily flag count start at 1 instead of 10, and be available at an even lower rep threshold than 15.

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  • "And what if you insist on a policy modification that the LAB won't support"... To be fair I had assumed one of the requirement to join the LAB was to agree on the modifications Commented Feb 22 at 8:55
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    @SPArcheon if you have to agree on future modifications before even knowing what they are, what is there to "consult with" and "advise on"?
    – starball
    Commented Feb 22 at 8:58
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    that was exactly my point. You say "but it sounds like a really smooth way to get someone else to be the messenger of bad news and get shot in a CM's place" but I don't agree that is the "cynical" view. The real "cynical" view is noticing how the LAB can easily be cherry picked to only include "friendly voices" that will agree on default - basically you just eliminated the need to interact with all those meddling mods who would go strike on you and moved the talking to just a few ones you picked... No more annoying starball pointing out issues Commented Feb 22 at 9:05
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    @SPArcheon annoying? pointing out issues? me!?!?! nooooOOoo I would never. in more seriousness, as an example, I didn't get approved to join the SO AI search SOfT, even though I'd been quite appreciated by the staff involved with the Staging Grounds betas for my feedback there, and I think I answered well to the "interview" question about how I'd respond to a feature that I think has issues.
    – starball
    Commented Feb 22 at 9:31
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    Well, these qs do have some easy answers. 1st - I think it would be a recipe for disaster to try force the LAB to issue statements on our behalf in support of changes they disagree with and I hope no one ever tries. 2nd - Yeah, elections have to be competitive, e.g. there must be a loser. Otherwise the appointment is pro tempore. 3rd - It's a fair point, but it's not a panacea. It's hard to cover every issue one could have with a moderator team when they must be treated as individual complaints. 4th - IANAL and I cannot comment on this. SPArcheon's - The plan is to elect, not select, the LAB
    – Slate StaffMod
    Commented Feb 22 at 16:54
  • 3
    Not sure there's any particular need to consider complaints in isolation, @Slate; IME, when a community has truly lost confidence in a moderator there will be many complaints to consider, including from other moderators. The volume itself is a good indicator.
    – Shog9
    Commented Feb 22 at 20:19
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I do think there's merit here, and at least from the high-level view, I like the idea of an initiative focused squarely upon improving the working relationship between the Company and the Community.

A lot of people seem to disagree about the specifics here (which is definitely good– the day Meta stops disagreeing is the day the Community is truly dead), but I think there could be a lot of benefit in creating groups that exist with a central goal of just communicating and interacting with the Company in specific ways.

Yes, bureaucracy can be bad (and it has a nasty tendency to just multiply into more of itself), so I completely understand the folks wary of that, but I also think they may not be seeing the unfortunate reality that companies often talk in bureaucracy, and with that in mind creating some mechanism where the Community might be able to speak to the Company in a context and language that's more likely to be understood and actioned sounds like it could be promising.

I see value in an initiative that tries to build a method of communication that the Company (hopefully) finds easier to listen to and interact with, for the benefit of both parties (since "listening to Meta" is clearly not as simple as we all might want to believe, for multiple reasons).

Working within the resources available seems to be top of mind, which gives me hope, because I think that's the only viable attitude here that might lead to real change. There's a lot to be rightly skeptical about, especially in the specific details, but my hope is that this pans out and is a step in a good direction, especially if the folks behind it are truly committed and able to see it through.

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    When I think about bureaucracy I always think about complicated language ("We need a process at the end of which we have an implementation of X" instead of "We want X") and convoluted forms and I ask myself where the advantages of that are. However, if that really is the bottleneck and the company is simply unable to read the community despite of Meta with votes and everything, then we can try some sort of advocates, who do the work and translate between communication and company. However if it simply turns out that the company is still not interested, I would also quickly stop it again. Commented Feb 24 at 8:02
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I completely fail to understand your announcement.

The present system of running the platform provides an exchange between the community and its users. It works fine as you state in the introduction. I’m a member of several communities on this platform, the longest and most intensive contact since about 9 years with the community on philosophy. I agree with the assessment above. I am very happy with the moderators and the way of communication between all participants – it is also effective to punish the few violations of the rules.

My intention on this platform is not about leadership and other buzzwords from business.

I want to discuss philosophical and mathematical questions with others who share my interest. Exactly that and nothing else!

Hence I do not see any necessity for discussing leadership. And no necessity for a "partnership" with companies like Google, which have different motives than discussions about themes in academia and transparency.

What is the real motive behind your projected change?

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    I did downvote this Joe, because the problem at stakes here is a network wide thing. Your answer seems to me, ironically, missing the step back about this fact while at the same time arguing about "academic discussion". I admit I may give a wrong meaning to this word being a not an english speaker, but it still convey a sense of high level analysis, reflecting on wider range, where this answer sounds very narrowly scoped on your own playground and omitting the impact on the all minus 9 communities you're part of. (Blame ESL, this sounds harsher than I'd like it to be)
    – Tensibai
    Commented Apr 10 at 12:57
  • @Tensibai I changed the term under question to "discussions about themes in academia".
    – Jo Wehler
    Commented Apr 10 at 13:59
4

What's the saying? Something about good intentions and road construction. Well I forget, but the point is that intentions and results are highly correlated. I think that's right...

When have any of you witnessed a human problem solved by adding layers of bureaucracy? Who suggests the formation of a committee as a way to speed up the decision making process? Why are the people beghind this still employed?

You chose the right people for the job. Or you don't. Or you do, but the less capable among them empowered by your brilliant framework neuters their ability to effect change. Your rigid structures and groupthink incentivizing councils sound the death knell for organic and inspired collaborative works.

...imo anyway. I've been wrong before. It sucked though, and I've been careful to avoid repeating the experience.

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In my opinion, decency, charity, and the attempt to do good should always be at the forefront of all of our decision making—professional and personal. However, eliminating elections (or even proposing they are a negative) simply because "one-half of the participants, at minimum, leave upset and frustrated" is really quite a sad statement to come across in this post!!

In fact, I think this statement alone (and the effects it implicitly suggests may come from such a perspective) single-handedly led me to downvote this post and to ultimately lose trust in this process moving forward.

People get upset every second of every day—it's part of the human condition. So, we learn to brush it off, grow from the experiences, and persevere.

In the context of holding office, such elections (though potentially simply a popularity contest) do—by principle—allow the "best" candidate to take on a role. This is a net good for everyone involved.

  • If the losing candidate takes it personally enough to make this approach seem distasteful, then I would recommend that any such candidate reconsider things more realistically: candidacy is not for self, but for service of the community. If a candidate does not win, they should consider what they can do to win next time or how to provide the same or similar benefit to the community through other means.

In summary: to propose elections are bad because someone loses is itself the saddest thing I've read in weeks—and that's saying something! It's a dangerous and counterproductive stance to take, and I think such underlying philosophy will only lead to negative outcomes.

You lost my support.

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  • What about the other half of the bullet? "Elections always produce a loser and a winner; this system neither guarantees the fitness of the winner, nor does it guarantee that the loser is unfit for moderator service."
    – zcoop98
    Commented Mar 26 at 16:39
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    I'm rather sad that this particular line has been misinterpreted so severely - I suppose I have only myself to blame for that. In no way is this project focused on protecting people's feelings, which seems to be the impression many readers mistakenly came away with. The salient point of that line is that regardless of competence, someone may lose: the election process does not adequately discriminate whether someone is competent, only whether they are in the top N competent applicants. This neither guarantees the winners are fit to serve, nor guarantees the losers are unfit to serve.
    – Slate StaffMod
    Commented Mar 26 at 19:40
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    While it is of course the case that no election system ever perfectly elects people who are fit to serve, the point of the remark is that this system is set up such that we know for a fact it will not do so a significant proportion of the time. But make no mistake: the point of that comment is not to suggest that every nominee should get a participation trophy, to suggest that it is bad that people can be sad, or several other... less polite... comments I have seen on that line.
    – Slate StaffMod
    Commented Mar 26 at 19:42
  • @slate. Thanks for the clarification. Might I suggest editing your post to clarify (and perhaps avoid detracting focus) then? I suggest rewriting to mirror your first comment under my post, as it would much better represents what I think you're trying to get across (with less distraction) Commented Mar 27 at 5:07
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    @Slate - I think that people take losing so badly because elections are so very, very (very) infrequent. On my home site there hasn't been one for nearly four years. On others it's even longer. If you don't win, the chances that you'll still be active when the next one rolls around are really quite low, and that disheartens people.
    – Richard
    Commented Mar 30 at 17:47
  • @Slate - These guys haven't had a competitive election for 9 years(!) That's practically an ice age in Internet time. I would imagine that their users simply don't think there will ever be an election.
    – Richard
    Commented Mar 30 at 17:58
  • @Richard Still thinking about this...
    – Slate StaffMod
    Commented Apr 15 at 21:21
  • @Slate - There's an optimal curve that runs from the initial excitement of joining, growing as a user, gaining additional tools and (finally) becoming a moderator that is fundamentally broken here.
    – Richard
    Commented Apr 15 at 21:37
  • @Slate - There are many ways to resolve this, but more regular elections, term limits and larger moderation teams seems a good way to go. It creates less of an us vs. them feeling if you can become a 'them' relatively easily.
    – Richard
    Commented Apr 15 at 21:39
2

In sites with few active users, where often an election can fail to get the threshold necessary;

If they quit on good terms we could ask former appointed moderator or former moderator if they would take back the role. We could add a point in the moderator agreement if we want to get notified or not, to not be intrusive too.

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    An inability to find anyone willing to stand as moderator is usually symptomatic that a site is dead, but hasn't yet been taken out behind the wood-shed to be put down like Old Yeller.
    – Richard
    Commented Feb 25 at 22:12
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    @Richard Usually I would agree with you, but I seen a lot of ppl quit moding and just participate because of the old event of Monica, the forcing of the pronoun’s use, etc.. The staff got a big problem to make people want to be moderator..
    – yagmoth555
    Commented Feb 26 at 3:01
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    That's one of the consequences of this constant drumbeat of nonsense, trying to promote the idea that being a moderator is difficult and tiresome.
    – Richard
    Commented Feb 26 at 7:33
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    @Richard Which sites are you moderating? Surely not SO. And since it is not difficult and tiresome, how about you clean up the review queues there until tomorrow morning? stackoverflow.com/review Just 8000 reviews or so - you can do it.
    – Lundin
    Commented Feb 28 at 15:10
  • Unelected mods or mods elected in a non-competetive environment is a really bad idea, especially when the current system provides life terms for such mods. If the site isn't dead already, more than likely, they'll kill it.
    – TheMaster
    Commented Feb 29 at 15:18
  • @TheMaster - There are far too many "zombie" sites already. Those with practically no activity but that are being kept alive for god-knows-what reason
    – Richard
    Commented Mar 1 at 17:30
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The name "Leadership Advisory Board" (LAB) doesn't match the problem that led to its conception nor the functions that it will perform.

From the OP

to perform policy development and modification, advising on key decisions that the CM team and Stack Exchange may make, consult with the CM team and others about approach and methodology, and release key statements about matters of community interest.

I suggest you change the name to "Policy and Communication Advisory Board"

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