Chaos, lost trust, grief, and restoration

In response to Dear Stack Overflow, we need to talk, Jon Ericson, then a community manager at SO, wrote Chaos, Lost Trust, Grief, and Restoration. His post begins:

Over the weekend, one of our most respected users and moderator extraordinaire, Monica Cellio, wrote a post that shook me up. Please read it if you haven't. Come back, if you like, but please read that post first.

I'm not going to detail what happened or why; that story belongs to others. I'm going to venture a guess from knowing Monica for years that her words reflect a sense Stack Overflow, my employer, betrayed her. As operators of the Stack Exchange network, it was our responsibility to protect the volunteers who make it run from outside threats and we failed to do that job. It doesn't much matter that the action we took was minor in the grand scheme of things or that our intentions were to protect the community from a different sort of harm. We broke trust and our relationship will never be the same.

He said a lot more in the post. I wrote the following in comments:


Betrayal is a good word here.

It's now been almost three weeks. We've been super-patient, we've explained why it hurts, we've tried to give the team space to make a coherent response rather than a hasty one... and 20 days later, we have some supportive tweets (thanks Tim and Jay), an intention (on meta) to have a policy, but no further visible movement on the problem. Some of the other responses come across to me as circling the wagons. I think it's fair to say that a decent number of mods and users feel disenfranchised by things SE can fix. I know you're optimistic, but I'm not, yet. I want to be, but I still feel more hurt than optimistic.

There are two threads and y'll need to pay attention to both of them:

  1. The damage done by hasty actions from people acting publicly as employees.

  2. The chance of it happening again.

New policies address 2, but there's still an awful lot of hurt from 1 and I don't see that going away. There comes a point when "we're making policies so it won't happen again" isn't enough by itself. It's uncomfortable to examine one's past deeds, admit error, apologize and make amends, but we can't just pave over the past, not for serious betrayal like this. You can't look only to the future here; you need to repair the damage from past actions. You need to address both 1 and 2.

How? That part I don't know. There are things that would have helped weeks ago, but that ship has sailed. You need to attend to the very real human volunteers who have very real feelings of hurt and betrayal caused by SE's actions. You're going to have to trust us that those feelings are real, even if you can't understand them.


Jon asked for clarification. I added:

By "hasty actions" I meant both -- removing a site from HNQ because of a Twitter troll (yes, we were trolled), the meta post saying we "had" to take that action, telling the site it won't be reversed before next year, and on the Twitter side, the employees acting as employees when tweeting (and not clarifying/recanting). Those were hasty actions, and if they'd been quickly followed by equally-public "oops, we screwed up" messages -- "we'll restore the site to the HNQ while we talk about it, we apologize for inadvertently maligning a site and several named mods, we're sorry for reacting in the moment" -- then this would feel very different.

It's like we had a hasty screw-up (the tweets) but then SE made a conscious (non-hasty) decision to leave those changes in place anyway. It's not just the tweets but the decision not to ask the authors to clarify them. It's not just the HNQ change but the decision to leave the hasty policy change in place and hold it up as necessary.

I'm feeling hurt that, nearly three weeks in, there've been no official apologies as public as the attacks. And I feel bad for saying that, for that even being a thing, but apparently that's how I'm wired. I'd like to be able to patch this up, forgive, and move on -- and I'm having trouble doing that without some acknowledgement that this is a problem, my feelings (I won't speak for others but I think "our" not just "my") are valid, and this isn't how SE wants to work with our mods and communities.

I don't believe SE will throw mods under the bus. I believe and appreciate Jay's tweets, and Tim's. But it all feels kind of nebulous right now; as many people have said, we don't really want to use Twitter to record policy and maybe not to engage at all. I was expecting a blog post a few days after the incident with some navel-gazing, some after-action review, and some clear statements (like Jay's tweets) on our own site. I fear that the expected benefit from that blog post is dropping off as the weeks go by, and that too makes me sad and frustrated. I never expected weeks to go by like this. And I know this is wearing on members of your team who were already stretched too thin before this happened, so I expect there's some resentment on your team (not singling anybody out), and that doesn't feel so good either. Some of today's TL discussions were, um, not good in that regard. (This is a public comment, so I'll leave it at that.)

I want mods and CMs to be able to work together as partners. How we do that has to change, but I want a constructive working relationship there. I believe the CMs want that too. I am confident about the positive intentions of every individual involved in this. But, somehow, we seem to have trouble doing things as a team or, for y'all, as a company. It feels dysfunctional, and that worries me. SE has changed and, collectively, we haven't figured out how to adapt yet, which means there are going to be more disconnects. When they happen I want people of good will on all sides working to resolve them. How do we get there?