Blog: Online Communities

Most of these posts were originally posted somewhere else and link to the originals. While this blog is not set up for comments, the original locations generally are, and I welcome comments there. Sorry for the inconvenience.

A day much like any other

Get up, shower (because we do not let hygiene lapse).

Make coffee. I seem to have learned to drink coffee. Between us we're going through 4-6 K-cups per day; that jumbo box isn't going to last as long as it looks like it should. And that's with tea and cold drinks as well throughout the day. Remember to drink water; it matters.

Box of tea arrived yesterday. Good.

Plug laptop into dock, start work day. Visit the "pets" chat channel. Mon/Wed/Fri, join the virtual coffee break mid-morning just to see and interact with coworkers. Try to work productively. Pay particular attention to my mentee who joined the company two weeks ago in the midst of all this. Read more…

Link roundup (mostly online communities)

I have a lot of links I've been meaning to share accumulating in tabs, tweets, and whatnot. I'd wanted to "curate" this more, but sharing something is better than sharing nothing because I didn't get to that, so...

Looking back at Usenet

Steven Bellovin, one of the creators of Usenet 40 years ago, has written a retrospective and history of the project. I've actually had this open in a tab for a while; when I first came across it about half the articles had been posted and there were placeholders for the rest. He's now finished it.

This is a mix of technical and political history. At the time I was using it (I gained access around 1983, I think), I didn't know any of the background; to me as a student, ARPANet and Usenet were just two different networks that moved stuff around. (My experience of ARPANet at the time was limited to mailing lists.) I knew that Usenet was decentralized (unlike ARPANet, a government network), but I didn't at the time know the extent to which it was put together by a scrappy band of grad students with limited resources and an attitude of "it's easier to ask forgiveness than get permission". Or so it seems to me in reading this series of posts, anyway.

I learned a lot about the behavior of networked communities on Usenet. I made lots of mistakes, of course; I mean, not only was it a new concept to me, but I was an undergrad without a lot of broad, cultural experience outside my own. And even though I was a bumbling student learning the ropes, I could participate alongside everyone else there -- what you wrote and how well you communicated mattered a lot more than who you were. I -- a lowly undergrad and relative newcomer -- was taken seriously by the architects in planning the Great Renaming. Later the New Yorker would publish that famous cartoon about how on the Internet nobody knows you're a dog; even before that, I had already learned that on Usenet nobody knows (or cares) that you're an undergrad, or insert-demographic-here, or whatever. In retrospect, this might have been somewhat formative for me online.

Technologies change and communities change. Spammers got more aggressive, some of the communities I participated on either scattered or moved elsewhere, and the web emerged as a new way of interacting online. I preferred mailing lists to web forums (because email is push and web sites are pull; this was before syndication was a thing), and then I discovered blogs and LiveJournal. I gradually drifted away from Usenet. And over time I drifted away from some of those other things in favor of yet other things; online communities aren't done evolving by a longshot. (And then there's social media, which feels...different from intentional communities to me. Less cohesive, more episodic and sound-bite-ish.) I imagine that looking back to today in 40 more years will seem just as foreign and quaint as looking back to the beginnings of Usenet must seem to those who weren't around at the time.

Community-driven Q&A

I've been spending some of my free time working with two open-source projects that are building new, community-driven Q&A platforms. (Yes, two. We're cooperating, including on common interfaces, but have some different goals. We didn't know about each other right off.) I don't have useful programming skills to contribute, but I'm helping with other aspects, including functional design, some feature design, and general cat-herding (on the larger one). Also, one of them asked me to serve as doc lead. :-)

Codidact is a platform for networks of sites on specific topics, much like Stack Exchange is a network of sites. Lots of (current and former) moderators and users from Stack Exchange are involved. (No I did not start this project; I was recruited after it had started.) We're talking about better management of comments/discussion/feedback, and about answer scoring that takes controversy into account, and tying user privileges not to a single "reputation" number but to related activity on the site. We're also talking about allowing more per-site customization, the trick there being to support customization while preserving the sense of an overall network. We have a wiki, a draft functional spec, a front-end design framework, and a forum where we're hashing out a lot of the details. I hope we'll see a database schema soon.

As you can infer from all that, we don't have running code yet. However, we have one community that has been pretty much destroyed on its previous platform, and the Codidact team lead had previously built a prototype Q&A platform, so Writing has a temporary site now, as a stopgap and to keep the community together, while waiting for Codidact to be ready. (Site introduction.)

The team building the Codidact platform will also run an instance (a network of sites). Others are free to take the software and run their own instances if they want to follow different policies or prefer to have full control.

TopAnswers is being built by a few people from the DBA site on SE. They are being much more agile than Codidact is; they have a running site already, which gets improvements on a near-daily basis. Chat is tightly integrated; they actually built chat first so they'd have a place to coordinate building Q&A. They have an interesting voting model where people who've gained more stars (reputation-equivalent) can cast multiple votes on a post, essentially giving experts (to the extent that stars = expertise) optional weighted votes. They also integrate both meta posts and blog posts into a site's main question list instead of isolating those types of content elsewhere. I find this idea intriguing and am advocating it for Codidact too. (The link I provided is to the network-wide meta site. If you choose "Databases" from the selector at the top, you'll see what a "regular" site would look like.)

TopAnswers has a blog post laying out its high-level goals. I wrote some stuff too, from a "consumer's" perspective.

When some sort of incorporation is needed, both projects are planning on going the non-profit route (a la WikiMedia), so that the communities, not profit-seeking, remain central. Right now I think both are running on donated hosting.

Both approaches look interesting to me, and I can see some communities preferring one over the other. I'll be interested in seeing how things work out -- what ends up getting implemented on each, what lessons both positive and negative we learn from past experience, what changes stick, and where individual communities end up being active.

Rude comments on Stack Overflow

Stack Overflow did a study of comments, finding that 95%+ were rated as "fine" by human reviewers and then asking if we still need to focus on being seen as "unwelcoming". I answered:

I was once at a festival with some friends. Somebody camping across the road from us was being a disruptive jerk, and I commented negatively about it to a friend. The friend said to me: "there are 10,000 people here. If only 1% of the population is jerks, that's still 100 people."

Perspective is everything.

We don't tend to notice the vast majority of innocuous, even friendly interactions. We notice right away when somebody is being a jerk. How often does that happen? Not very. Does it make more of an impact when it does? You bet!

If 5% of comments are problematic in some way, that's one in twenty. How many SE comments does somebody typically encounter in a day? There are currently 15 on this page alone. So maybe a casual visitor won't always see a problem comment, but if it happens every second or third visit, is that something to be concerned about? Because it doesn't take many bad comments to get there.

Now, I disagree with how SE has handled some of these problems (sometimes quite strongly), and I do think some people go looking for opportunities to be offended, but I also know, from direct experience, that some of our sites do have problems with comments. What we should (and shouldn't) do about that is far from clear, but to speak to the question you ask: yes, I think 5% bad is enough to pay attention to.

Stack Exchange's growing pains

Stack Exchange used to be able to function like a smaller company...until they couldn't. They don't seem to know how to be a bigger company yet, so sometimes they step in it badly. This time they not only stepped in it badly but they then reached for the shovel to dig even deeper.

Background: If you visit any site on the network you'll see, partway down the right column, a list of random-seeming questions from other network sites. These are called "hot network questions", and the communities have been asking for years for SE to tune the algorithm that chooses questions. (It responds to velocity, not quality, and thus optimizes for controversy.) People complained; nothing happened.

In mid-October somebody who turned out to be a troll complained on Twitter about two such questions, seen on Stack Overflow, from the site Interpersonal Skills. The title of one of them was not great (which is what edits are for); the other one was fine. But this person got a rant on and has followers. Within 40 minutes, an employee responded with something like "that's not ok; I've just removed that site from the hot list and we'll look into what's going on with that site". Great way to throw a community under the bus there. (The community wasn't notified until hours later.) Meanwhile, one of the moderators on that site, who I know to be a clueful and thoughtful person, responded to the tweet (in retrospect a bad idea) and tried to help. Other people responded too because, hey, that's how Twitter works.

So then our Twitter troll (twoll?) ranted some more because people were responding, and accused the moderator and others by name of "sealioning" (apparently a form of trolling) and generally spouted outrage, and a different employee jumped in and said something like "if those messages came from mods we'll fire them" -- without even asking first what these allegedly-trolling messages said. (The employee thought they were direct messages, meaning you'd have to ask because DMs are private.) So the employee jumped to a faulty conclusion and validated the troll without seeming to consider that maybe the facts were not as presented. Read more…

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: Read more…

Dear Stack Overflow, we need to talk

We’ve had a rough few days. I get that you’re tired of hearing about it, but the damage is still there, so we can’t just ignore it, hide behind the weekend, and hope it’ll blow over. It won’t. You need to act.

Your silence in the face of bad behavior is harming your relationship with the volunteers and community members who make your sites work.

On Wednesday a Twitter user complained about the titles of two questions in your “Hot Network Questions” list. Within 40 minutes, an employee responded to say that an entire site had just been kicked off the list. The titles weren’t particularly problematic, by the way. The author of one of them saw the tweet and edited the title. It makes me wonder why public criticism of the whole site was your first response, instead of an edit.

But that’s not the biggest problem here. Read more…

Forums versus mailing lists

Somebody asked: why do people use mailing lists instead of forums? This person feels that forums are superior: you can search them, they don't fill up your inbox, and the back-and-forth on mailing lists can be hard to follow.

As someone who uses both, and has seen "let's move to a forum!" kill healthy mailing lists, I had some things to say: Read more…

Cultural relativism and the "offensive" flag

On the Stack Exchange network, posts can be flagged as "offensive" and validated flags carry extra penalties. Users who are active on one site can flag posts on other sites, including ones they're not especially familiar with, and, in fact, the network has a crew of people who do just that, monitoring the whole network.

One of those users asked: "offensive" in whose eyes? This person was personally offended by something on the Islam site about rules for women's dress, considering such rules to be misogyny. But the asker also acknowledged that it's in line with that religion's teachings. Are you supposed to just look away, or is it ok to go into other communities and flag things you personally find offensive?

I wrote: Read more…