We need to talk.

We need to talk about StackExchange sites: about their autonomy, about governance.

We need to sift through all the analogies that have been thrown around (democracy, policemen, administrators, overlords, etc.) and decide which ones are useful and truthful.

Is StackExchange the United Sites of StackExchange? Or is each site a completely autonomous republic?

Is each site self determining and free to set it's own ethos? Or is their an overriding 'culture' which is enforced?

Is each meta the capital of an independent country, or the council of a city? Is meta.stackoverflow just about the framework and bugs, or is it the real 'one capital to rule them all'?

There is a lot of talk about community, but I wonder if the Big Revolts1 would ever have happened if it had been clearly stated from the start: "this is a benevolent dictatorship, with a fair amount of autonomy".

The furor on meta.math.se at the end of last year was an example (in my opinion) of a culture clash which was not helped by this ambiguity: those coming over from MathOverflow were used to 'robust discussion' and couldn't see why they shouldn't carry that over to their new house; whereas StackExchangers looked on horrified at their new brawling neighbours.

I think the frontiers of the dictatorship/autonomy divide need to be discussed and drawn out clearly for all to see.

1Revolts? a) The StackExchange 1.0->2.0 'transition'. b) The domain name/no domain name change.

  • @badp, yeah, yeah, ok. It's poetic hyperbole, so humour me :) Just pretend Welbog posted the question....
    – Benjol
    Jan 25, 2011 at 12:12
  • 6
    Welbog? Where are the "freakin' lasers"?
    – user136634
    Jan 25, 2011 at 12:15
  • 3
    It's impossible to pretend Welbog posted this question. It lacks the soul of justice present in most of his writings.
    – Grace Note StaffMod
    Jan 25, 2011 at 12:19
  • 1
    @Developer, there's some nice ones here :)
    – Benjol
    Jan 25, 2011 at 12:19
  • 2
    – Welbog
    Jan 25, 2011 at 22:22
  • 3
    +1 Those are questions worth discussing...
    – augustin
    Mar 14, 2011 at 12:58

8 Answers 8


I'd like to provide a short(ish) answer. (Well, it was gonna be short)

Stack Exchange is not a Democracy. Stack Exchange is not a Dictatorship. Stack Exchange is not a government, and any attempt to fit it into that model will fail.

Stack Exchange is a company. And that company's job is to grow and make money. It will act like a democracy where it helps them make money, and it will act like a dictatorship when that helps them make money.

This is a good thing. We want this company to succeed. They are providing a great service to us.

Another good thing is that Stack Exchange wants us to be happy, because without customers, they will not succeed. So, don't worry too much about what type of government this site is. Just know that they have our best interest in mind most of the time because that serves their best interest as well.

  • 2
    Very, very well said. Quid pro quo comes to mind.
    – Trufa
    Mar 16, 2011 at 1:08
  • +1. It just seems sometimes that they're so concerned with new users that they'll willingly anger existing users.
    – John
    Mar 16, 2011 at 3:58
  • Well, as soon as this "good thing" you mention starts being noticeable, I will pack my knowledge and go elsewhere. Mar 18, 2011 at 2:15
  • 8
    Don't take this personally, but this answer is nonsense. The type of government is important in exact the moment you fail to be happy according to your best interest as defined by them. What counts is only the moment you disagree with your government, so saying that you shouldn't care about the type of government in times of abundance is like saying that you shouldn't care about your dams as long as their is no flood.
    – sbi
    Mar 20, 2011 at 22:18

The furor on meta.math.se at the end of last year was an example (in my opinion) of a culture clash which was not helped by this ambiguity: those coming over from MathOverflow were used to 'robust discussion' and couldn't see why they shouldn't carry that over to their new house; whereas StackExchangers looked on horrified at their new brawling neighbours.

I only want to point out that this "furor" died down completely once they had proper democratic moderator elections. (And math was bumped to the tip-top of the beta elections for this very reason.)


Note that mathoverflow.net (a Stack Exchange 1.0 site) has never had a democratic moderator election, not even once, to my knowledge. Whereas elections are standard on every Stack Exchange 2.0 site.

In general the principle is to cede as much power as possible to the users and moderators of the community, however, there is stil a "United Sites of Stack Exchange" under which all sites are still expected to have similar layouts, Q&A norms, civil behavior, and so forth.

It's very much like states' rights vs. the national government. Both are necessary and both parties participate in the negotiation.

  • Jeff, thanks for answering, I appreciate it. You forgot the other image: imgur.com/zmR3S :)
    – Benjol
    Mar 18, 2011 at 5:40

OK, sorry for the grandiloquent introduction. Not sure that I managed to really get my point across.

So, I'll try again here: I perceive that in some cases there is a problem because people take the "community driven" at face value, and as an absolute. They are then surprised and troubled by any external intervention. Where else did the (negative) term "overlords" come from on meta.math?

I'm not saying that anything should be changed in the way StackExchange is run, what I am suggesting is that maybe a little tweak is required in the way it is presented. For example:

"StackExchange sites are run for and by the community. However, if situations arise where democracy appears not to be working (by our definition of working) we (SOIS) reserve the right to intervene as we deem appropriate."

  • I'm not saying we should codify everything.
  • I'm not saying we should set up a structure or government
  • I am saying that peoples perception of these things can turn ultrasensitive, so it merits attention
  • "Overlords", "authoritarian", "tyranny", "diktat"... and naturally Godwin's Law are used on pretty much every site - this is done even when Stack Overflow Internet Services Inc. doesn't intervene or even when it's not the pro tems. Normal member activity can trigger it, it's something of a natural response to perception of disliked authority. Your motives are good here, but I'm not really certain this will change any much more as far as bad scuffles go. It's not just what the Team "deems appropriate". They do this because they care about the communities.
    – Grace Note StaffMod
    Jan 25, 2011 at 17:48
  • The main reason I'm not fond with this kind of approach is because it fosters a strong impression that the Team is completely separate from the community, that there exists an "Us" and a "Them". That seems to make it more frustrating for the Community, as it'll make it seem like they have a looming shadow. It creates an excuse to be angry at "overlords". When in reality, the Team acts as a subset of the whole "us", with their motives all in the same desire to see the sites succeed that us normal users do. They're separate, just not as if they are some dissociated entity.
    – Grace Note StaffMod
    Jan 25, 2011 at 17:58

It's a friggin' website. Analogies are great, but only if you don't stretch them too far. Try to create One Metaphor To Rule Them All, and you end up with Microsoft Bob...

those coming over from MathOverflow were used to 'robust discussion' and couldn't see why they shouldn't carry that over to their new house

Whatever. "Robust discussion" != "unproven assertions"...

I scanned a few of the more fiery discussions on Meta.Math.SE, and didn't really see anything terribly unusual... Except for a willingness on the part of certain Math.SE users to assert their own exceptionalism without any real justification. Frankly, they oughtn't be surprised when walking around with their noses in the air ends with bruised chins... We may not require formal proofs on Meta, but hand-waving ain't gonna cut it.


I wrote about this once: Why is there a double standard regarding non-programming related questions at Stack Overflow?

  • 1
    Nice, thanks. I had a look for existing questions that might be related, but didn't find anything.
    – Benjol
    Jan 25, 2011 at 12:29

I don't believe there's a "need" to find terms or words that can tie the network to some idea of government and representation that can cause more problems than it solves.

At the end of the day, SOIS is interested in making sites that work. If a site doesn't work, it goes down. Stack Overflow is the elephant in the room and other sites can't just ignore it; still, they may or may not align to its policies, or even need different ones (think Programmers).

One of the things that make the site great is that, mainly, sites do not distinguish between employees and moderators. They're all diamonds. As far as I know, what Jeff locks, a per-site mod may unlock. What Robert closes, five 3kers can reopen. What Rebecca oy's, people can star. Sure, usually this doesn't happen, but that's out of respect, not out of impossibility.

I don't think it can get more open than that, honestly.

"The StackExchange 1.0->2.0 'transition'" wasn't at all a revolt, as far as I know. Jeff and Joel wanted SE to work -- and it wasn't, so they brought it down. Sure, some sites did work (MathOverflow, EpicAdvice) and, as a result, are entertaining the idea of going their separate ways, but there's no pleasing everyone.

The domain name "slip" is kind of harder to gulp down, as the team found out far too late that the naming threads weren't working. We don't know what'll happen when the first SEs start qualifying for real domain names, so there's no need to speculate.

At the end of the day, I don't think SOIS has the will, the interest or the resources to "impose" its will in all sites' policies. What they do care about is having sites that work. They will and have kept a closer look on sites experiencing trouble (Math or SciFi), but that's not because they're power tripping, that's because they care.

Remember, there's no "us" and no "they"; we're all in this together (or at least, that's the way it's supposed to be.)

Obviously, I don't own a cent of the business, I haven't paid a cent for SE 1.0 and as such this post is heavily biased by my perspective. Weigh my opinion accordingly.

  • Maybe my question is worded wrong. I'm not militating for more autonomy, or saying that a 'benevolent dictatorship' is bad, I just think there is too much room for misunderstanding at the moment.
    – Benjol
    Jan 25, 2011 at 12:36
  • @Benjol Yeah, I don't see the need to mummify the situation with words, or have a laundry list of what sites can or cannot decide for themselves.
    – badp
    Jan 25, 2011 at 12:54
  • 2
    Just to be clear. I'm not saying that 1.0-2.0 wasn't the right or logical thing to do. It's just that you can't say "we're all in this together" and then say "we're shutting you down, sorry", without admitting that there IS a power imbalance.
    – Benjol
    Jan 25, 2011 at 12:58
  • @Benjoy Sure there is, I don't deny it. Employees can do all sorts of things moderators can't do, like elections, editing CSS/HTML, etc.
    – badp
    Jan 25, 2011 at 13:10
  • You're right, 1.0-2.0 wan't a revolt, but it provoked lots of hard feelings because people felt betrayed. Maybe - maybe - because they took the "run by you" bit too literally...
    – Benjol
    Jan 25, 2011 at 17:43

Do the frontiers of the dictatorship/autonomy divide need to be discussed and drawn out clearly for all to see?

I think that SE 2.0 is less than a year old, and attempting to codify (and then enforce) the hierarchy of the community is only going to lead to greater difficulties and friction. This isn't an exact science, and attempting to treat it as such may feel good from a pedantic perspective, but will ultimately backfire.

Let's let things stew for awhile. Arguably even the oldest site (2.5 years now) in the network is still undergoing change and experiencing flux - give the 6 month old kids some time to grow up before making them choose what they want to be as an adult.

  • 3
    Using a 'Quote Block' makes it more obvious that you are quoting the OP.
    – jjnguy
    Jan 25, 2011 at 16:43
  • @Justin - True, but I've edited it to clearly indicate that this is the particular question I'm answering, despite the extensive OP.
    – Pollyanna
    Jan 25, 2011 at 16:45
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    Yo dawg, I herd you like bold, so would you mind putting some blockquote on your bold so you can quote while you stress?
    – badp
    Jan 25, 2011 at 19:12
  • I'm sorry, did you run smack dab into that bold? i288.photobucket.com/albums/ll164/stienman/…
    – Pollyanna
    Jan 25, 2011 at 20:16

It's definitely a dictatorship. They have tens of millions of dollars worth of motivation for keeping the whole site on a short leash.

I wanted to write a long, possibly insightful answer here, but why bother: I know it will be deleted before too long. Censorship is pretty heavy, around here.

Allow me to cut and paste part of my answer from the now defunct question:
That question was until a few hours ago, the 6th highest rated question at MSO, and still rising. But the powers that be didn't like the truths it contained.

I wrote:


Ok, to make my point here, I am going to make a completely uninterested plugin to one of my favourite companies. Bear with me a little. I register all of my domain names with Gandi.net. As they say on their tag line: No bullshit. Beside their professional service, what I really like about them is that they always strive to things the right way, from an ethical point of view. But what I really want to share here is an experience that particularly impressed me. One day, I had to transfer a domain name. Because of a technical glitch, it didn't proceed as smoothly as I would have expected. I lost patience and used their official blog to publicly blame them and insult them, while they were doing their best to help me. Eventually, the bug was fixed and the transaction completed smoothly. The glitch was original caused by an uncommon transfer scenario.

When I calmed down, I realized that I had over-reacted (as I unfortunately sometimes tend to). Bugs are a facts of life. What really impressed me is that at no time did they make any attempt at deleting or hiding my virulent criticism that I had posted on their blog. My comment stood out, being the first one of their latest blog entry. When I asked them about it, they said that in order to grow, they must accept criticism, fair or unfair. They wanted the facts, as well as their community of users, to speak for themselves. Did I mention that I was truly impressed? I knew my comment was unfair, so I was the one to ask them to delete it. I'll remain a faithful customer of theirs for a long time to come. Much better than the GoPappy-kind of alternatives, who have been caught red handed doing some border-line unethical stuff.

Compare this anecdote to what's happening here. In particular, check this question:

Why can't you roll out new features the way everybody else does?

Check who closed it, almost as soon as it was posted and why...

Now, I don't dispute the fact that the question was most certainly a duplicate. But it does look bad when the site owner stomps out what is obviously criticism squarely aimed at them. I thought this web site was community driven? (see above). Certainly, the community is mature enough to close the question itself. Don't they trust the community? Or don't they accept criticism?

Remember to take screenshots and to save the html to file, if you want to keep a record of what's happening here. Memory, and censorship, play tricks.

  • 4
    The question no longer served a purpose, and it's still available for any 10k user to see. There's a difference between destroying useful discussions, and stopping a raucous brawl that is overwhelming the front page.
    – Pollyanna
    Mar 16, 2011 at 1:51
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    @augustin, thanks for your input. I'm not sure I agree about the powers that be not liking the truths. I think it was the extraneous 'crap' that they didn't like. Be that as it may, I had read your anecdote, and I think it's valid and illustrates your point about how to handle criticism.
    – Benjol
    Mar 16, 2011 at 6:18
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    @Adam: That 10k users argument is, erm, bovine excrements. There's less than 50 out of >25,000 users on MSO who can now see those questions and their answers. In my book, this is the definition of "unavailable". (FWIW, 99.8% of the users, including you, can't even check whether it really is true.) And if that discussion was not useful, then how come the team addressed so many points that had been brought up on q82538?
    – sbi
    Mar 16, 2011 at 8:09
  • 4
    @Benjol: How can deleting a question that's among the highest ever voted 0.03% out of >20,000 questions not be denying reality and truth? Jeff (or whoever, SO is regrettably opaque in that regard), has deleted even comments that referred to comments which referred to deleted comments (no, I'm not exaggerating), so whatever could be defined as "crap" in anyone's book was pretty much already deleted from that page. If I make a decision that annoys so many of my users, I'd better be prepared to deal with the annoyance and ride out the resulting turmoils while I fix the problems.
    – sbi
    Mar 16, 2011 at 8:19
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    @sbi, have you seen Jeff's answer here? I think it goes a way to explaining his perspective. And note that he hasn't closed that question, nor my answer which wasn't exactly congratulatory.
    – Benjol
    Mar 16, 2011 at 8:22
  • 1
    That question is toxic to keep because it shadows other, much more important changes about to be rolled out: meta.stackexchange.com/questions/81929/… (OMG! What is that? Jeff asking for feedback on an upcoming change?! UNPOSSIBLE!)
    – badp
    Mar 16, 2011 at 8:44
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    @badp's sockpuppet: A lot of those answers and comments were much more constructive than your comment here.
    – sbi
    Mar 16, 2011 at 9:20
  • @Benjol: I hadn't, thanks for pointing it out. I disagree with his POV, and I'm sure he would have, too, if he wasn't affected by it. But that's something I have to (a will) express there.
    – sbi
    Mar 16, 2011 at 9:22
  • @sbi What's so offensive there? My pointing out that things don't exactly match the portrayal of Jeff's behaviour that has been recently painted? What's so unconstructive? My realizing that there's more important stuff than the envelope? (I'm not going to continue this in comments, please catch me on chat if you want to discuss this any further.)
    – badp
    Mar 16, 2011 at 9:24
  • @Adam: I now see that I have misread your rep by one decimal digit. I correct myself: You can see the deleted question. I'm sorry for that brainfart. Note that I don't think this affects any of the central points in my comment, though.
    – sbi
    Mar 16, 2011 at 9:24
  • 3
    @badp's: How does the fact that he asked for feedback in any way contradict the fact that he dealt very badly with valid criticism? And comments in the tone of yours up there criticizing the change (or even just the way Jeff dealt with the critique) got deleted within minutes.
    – sbi
    Mar 16, 2011 at 9:28

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