StackOverboard (how to ruin 10 years of goodwill and alienate your users)

Full article

Stack Exchange Inc has had a busy few weeks mucking things up. I've spent more time reading meta threads than I have in a long time, as I imagine a lot of longtime SE users have been, trying to grasp the current situation and all its implications.

It started when SE (or maybe one or two employees) championed a change to their Code of Conduct that advocated for protection of one group of users by coercing the speech of every other user. Stack Exchange, owner of Stack Overflow and nearly 200 other Q&A sites, decided last year that we're not friendly enough, partly in response to an ignorant tweet, and subsequently introduced a single network-wide CoC.

Very recently, they made a small but significant change: (emphasis mine)

We don’t tolerate any language likely to offend or alienate people based on race, gender, sexual orientation, or religion — and those are just a few examples. Use stated pronouns (when known). When in doubt, don't use language that might offend or alienate.

They moved (not so) subtly from "Say something nice or nothing at all" to "Say something that fits our definition of nice or get out", and either hoped no one would notice or just didn't care if they did.

In doing so, they managed to simultaneously bring undue attention to and offend the sensibilities of that group, boot a moderator who questioned them, and cause bitterness, confusion, doubt, and panic across the network.

They've since decided to dig their heels in, offering canned and backhanded apologies, going public and naming names (The Register has since posted a clarifying article), and finally indicating (rather passive-aggressively) that it'd be better if detractors just left. I could add denial to the list, but then Jeff doesn't work there anymore...

As a result, moderators are resigning or stepping back from their (completely unpaid and voluntary) roles all over the network, devs are pulling their support for SE's "Teams" product, and a whole lot of people are kinda just tossing in the towel.

They've promised to change some things going forward, but have refused to rollback the CoC, reinstate the moderator who was unceremoniously let go, or go back to the press admitting they were wrong.

My Thoughts (in no particular order)

I'm not a moderator, and my primary involvement has been on Stack Overflow where your gender is least likely to come up, so I'm probably in an unlikely position to cross the almighty CoC. Yet the actions of SE still worry me - the way they rolled it out and treated Monica Cellio sends a message to everyone in the network.

Your hill is not my hill

Anyone who's used social media for more than a few hours knows that every day brings a different issue to feel offended about, a different "hill to die on". Some people relish the opportunity to identify with these issues, and crush anyone who doesn't share their zeal - or God forbid, takes the opposing view.

As Bill Maher said (posted by one of the first mods who resigned):

The difference is that liberals protect people, and P.C. people protect feelings. They don’t do anything. They’re pointing at other people who are somehow falling short of their standards, which could have changed three weeks ago. They’re constantly moving the goalposts so they can go, “Gotcha!”

I think someone decided this was their hill, and they decided to make it everyone's hill. So that begs the question, where will we be marched tomorrow? Next year? I've said as much before - this network is the unique collaborative effort of millions of people, many of whom do not agree with the ideological stances individual SE staff may hold. But by making them "official" corporate stances, they're marching us up their hill too.

I've had coworkers find my answers on the site. I've had teammates tease me for being the "Stack Overflow guy". It follows that the more I contribute, the more they'll associate me with the things that SE values.

Caleb, who resigned from Christianity.SE, said it better.

The reason I am withdrawing my support now is that I am being asked not just to limit the scope of my voice on somebody else's platform but to lend my own voice in support of their cause. The new "tolerance" is tolerant of everything except ideological disagreement. It is forced conformity.

What's that stabbing pain in my back?

It is, I think, reasonable to expect a site you're participating in and contributing to will support you, or at least work fairly with you. SE failed here, in one post seemingly referring to forcing Monica out as "We learned (or were painfully reminded, rather) to never ship at 6 PM (EDT) on a Friday." Um, ouch.

They destroyed Monica's credibility, which affects every aspect of her real life including job prospects and anyone else who might search her name online.

[Joel] encouraged people to use their real names and led by example. Perhaps it was naive, but I followed suit. SE's actions, particularly going to the media, have the potential to affect my actual livelihood. SE never paid me but they can affect my future sources of income. Back then I thought the biggest risk of using my real name was offline trolling (which has happened). I was wrong.

I have zero trust that SE would offer me support in a dispute. If I choose to go for neutral instead of affirmative, I could very well end up the next one they publicly humiliate. They claim to have instituted a "no comment" policy for the press going forward... that doesn't change the fact that an SE employee was pissed off enough to do it in the first place. And I think they'd happily suspend my account while continuing to make a profit from my contributions with their ads.

Assuming malicious (bad faith) intent

I think of "be nice" as similar to the tenet "treat others as you'd want to be treated". It shows trust in the community to define what "be nice" is, and assumes everyone is acting in good faith and that their actions are "sincere conduct free from malice".

But SE seems, more and more, to believe the community is incapable of following the spirit of "be nice" (although I haven't seen specific reasons why), so they must now spell out the letter of the law. In compelling a particular speech, they send a message that they've given up on a genuine change of spirit. It makes them feel better about themselves, as if some progress has really been made.

The feeling is mutual, as a lot of the network has lost faith in them too.

One CoC to rule them all

Even though all these various sites have vastly different communities built around vastly different topics, and organic rules that have sprung up over years, they shoved everyone in a single box. The network is huge and the problems and issues of individual networks are not the problem of the whole network.

With sites on nearly 200 topics incorporating millions and millions of people from all around the world, the exact set of rules at the very top should be pretty vague, allowing for individual communities to define the rules they need in order to be civil. If SE Inc says "be nice", the exact details should be hashed out by each "community" over time, which is basically what happens on each meta site.

What's next for me?

It's Nov 11th, 6 weeks without a sincere response from SE. There's still regular posts on meta asking for a resolution, and SE is still ignoring the situation, which has even led to Monica raising $25k towards a lawsuit. It's unbelievable.

typical ostrich
SE Inc legal team, demonstrating the new corporate strategy

For my part, I've decided to...

  • Stop further contributions (flagging, editing, answering, etc) other than upvoting.
  • Remove some of my contributions. You can delete up to 5 of your unaccepted answers daily, and even retain earned rep if they're 60+ days old with 3+ score. Wonder if they will honor that? **
  • Link to this post in my bio, to inform future visitors.
  • Close out my profiles across the network, except SO where I'll continue to upvote questions and answers to reward the contributions of others.
  • Possibly request my personal data, just for curiosity's sake.

** Update 12/29: The answer is no, apparently not. A moderator contacted me, reversed my decision to remove my own answers, and restored everything. It appears that he is (based on other comments) desperate to maintain the "everything is fine" facade.

A live view of current efforts to restore the status quo.

I'm aware that "taking my ball and going home" is not the spirit of making contributions like these, but SE Inc changed the shape of the court and the rules of the game first. It's disheartening that I'm contributing to their financial success, in some small way, ad infinitum. And what I was doing was still following the letter of their established laws.

My response:

Moderator response:

I read that second-to-last paragraph as, "You just can't take away your intellectual contributions that have, and continue to, line SE Inc's pockets." And from another unpaid volunteer no less. 🙄 I didn't bother replying - what's the point?

I've walked away from this experience with a different mindset though. If anyone reading this wants to start a blog where they can post their knowledge for everyone to find, but feels overwhelmed or isn't sure where to start, I'm happy to help where I can. If you're looking for another community to get involved with, similar in function to SO, check out Codidact.

Bedtime reading

There has been so so much posted about all of this, it's overwhelming. If you just can't get enough, read about SE's previous screwups, who resigned and why, and official responses and SE in the news.

Some good (or at least relevant) posts

Some phenomenally bad answers

Thoughtful tweet threads from George Stocker

George was a longtime mod who stepped down fairly early on:

I may add to this list as time goes on. Or I may do the healthier thing and just go for a nice long walk and get some fresh air. 🌞 🌲 💨


Grant Winney

I write when I've got something to share - a personal project, a solution to a difficult problem, or just an idea. We learn by doing and sharing. We've all got something to contribute.

Comments / Reactions