Blog: Stack Overflow

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.

Licenses: only as strong as the will to enforce them

I realized, while doing some digital housekeeping, that Stack Overflow Inc. is using some of my writing, without attribution, in violation of the Creative Commons license under which they obtained it. To correct it, I would have to file a DMCA takedown demand, which would require me to be in contact with them and their lawyers, which is icky quite aside from any retaliation they might engage in. I don't currently have the will to deal with that, so they get away with violating my copyright and license.

I'd likely be ok with them using it, at least on the public sites, with the required attribution, and if they do so for other people's work they've taken, too. (I know I'm not the only one, because one of mine is in turn built on something by someone else.) I think they're banking on the fact that engaged users don't tend to mind and people they've driven out don't want to take on the burden of securing a correction. Such things do a lot more damage to the individual than to the corporate behemoth, after all. In their younger days they would have readily done the honest and ethical thing, but these days?

They can get away with it because they can make things unpleasant. But having noticed it, I can also note it here.

Tainted elections

Stack Overflow (Stack Exchange) has been faltering for a while for a variety of reasons that boil down to "still don't know how to work with rather than against their communities and power users". Even so, I'm surprised to see three corrupted moderator elections in a span of two weeks, one of them on the one site they actually kind of care about, Stack Overflow.

First up is a Stack Overflow election. I became aware of this incident when I noticed an extreme spike in view stats for Dear Stack Overflow, we need to talk on one day and looked around to see what might be causing it. During the voting stage of the election (the second week, after a week for nominations), the moderators and community managers (SO employees) jointly decided to remove a candidate. They did not suspend the user, so this is already on very shaky ground -- the community is supposed to choose its moderators from candidates who meet the eligibility requirements, which this candidate still did. Now, this candidate had done something problematic, and if they had suspended him for it then his candidacy would have been revoked legitimately, but they decided it wasn't bad enough to suspend over.

They didn't stop there, though. They announced on their meta site that the candidate had been removed, they talked about the allegations, and they did all of this before talking with the candidate. Their reasoning was that they had to make a prompt announcement so that people who had already voted would know to review their votes. Except, no -- they didn't need to do that. SO is fully capable of pausing an election; they only needed to announce a pause (without removing anyone), discuss it with the candidate, and reach a resolution -- like letting the candidate gracefully withdraw. SO recently restarted an election on another site, so there's already precedent for intervening in the timeline for extraordinary reasons.

I would think that "we'd like to avoid smearing a user in public" would count as extraordinary reasons, but apparently not. The candidate returned a day or two later, having suffered a local Internet outage in his part of the world. Imagining getting back online, going to a site you care enough about to want to lead, and seeing that. Cringe.

It was completely avoidable, had the community managers running things cared to avoid it.

Read more…

New VP of community at Stack Exchange, prognosis unknown

Stack Exchange recently promoted someone to VP of Community, and he posted on Meta asking what to change and what is inviolate. It's too soon to tell if these are just empty words, as is the norm with Stack Exchange leaders in recent years, or if he intends to and will be allowed to work with the community. Someone pointed all this out to me, so I figured, hey, I'd log in for the first time in many months and accept his invitation (posted yesterday afternoon):

Today is Tisha b'Av, the date the ancient Jewish temple was destroyed. (I promise this is relevant.) According to our tradition, the second temple was destroyed because of baseless hatred, sinat chinam. Among all the problems of the time, one incident stood out as the precipitating event:

A wealthy man held a party and sent his servant to invite his friend Kamtza. The servant misunderstood and made the invitation to Bar Kamtza, whom the host hated. Bar Kamtza, thinking the man was offering an olive branch, attended. The host was furious and ordered him to leave. Bar Kamtza, trying to save face, repeatedly tried to make peace, offered to pay for his food, and even offered to pay for half the party. But the host expeled him in front of all his other guests, none of whom objected, setting in motion a chain of events that led to the destruction.

The host hated Bar Kamtza so much that he no longer saw him as a fellow human being deserving of basic decency and dignity. Presented with the results of a misunderstanding, the man in power escalated instead of de-escalating, harming everybody present (and, according to the account in the Talmud, the whole nation).

Philippe, your predecessors didn't destroy a whole people or a national treasure, but there has been a lot of baseless hatred and harm and pain to lots of people over the last few years. Some of that can never be repaired, but some still can be, even at this late date. What has been missing is not the ability to correct errors but the will.

What should you change as quickly as possible? This ongoing failure to make what amends and repairs can be made. It's the ethical thing to do, and -- to speak to the company's business-driven interests -- it would show the people who build Stack Overflow and the SE network that you're willing and able to correct mistakes. Everybody makes mistakes; we learn a lot about people and institutions by seeing how they handle their effects. Yes you have the power of the wealthy party host, but is that the kind of person you want to be?

What should you never touch? The community's goodwill. You have the potential for awesome partners in growth, people who still want to see Stack Overflow succeed despite it all, people who know a lot about how to do that on the community side. You've got lots of professional experience but you're new to SE and SE jettisoned decades of its CM expertise in January 2020. The previous people at upper levels not only didn't engage with the communities but shunned them. By coming to Meta and starting this conversation you've taken an important step. Keep that up and follow through: engage with the community, participate on some of the 170 communities, ask for feedback regularly, carefully listen to feedback (which is not the same as "do what we say"), don't spring disruptive changes on people -- treat the community as partners not enemies.

(I realize much of the previous paragraph belongs in the "what should I change" paragraph, because what needs to change is the corporate attitude, but the reason it needs to change is that somehow you still have a community here that cares, and you should work hard to maintain a good relationship with it.)

I was asked in a comment some time later if anybody from the company had contacted me. On 2021-09-27 I updated the post to say that I have not been contacted.

The future of Stack Overflow

Yesterday Stack Overflow was bought by Prosus, a tech company based in the Netherlands, for a jaw-dropping $1.8B (yes billion). In the world of recent tech acquisitions that might be small change, but it's about three times what I thought their current valuation was. It's kind of a mystery what Prosus (yeah, I'd never heard of them before either) is getting out of this.

I might have more to say about this later, but for now I'm going to post here what I wrote on Reddit (which I joined for other reasons a couple months ago but hadn't posted on before), in response to a comment referring to "SO’s bonkers relationship with its moderator community" and suggesting that getting bought by a mega-corp would make that even worse.

I don't know how the sale will affect their disastrous relationship with the people they rely on to donate and curate content for their financial gain. Often a new owner doesn't understand what it's bought and makes things worse by meddling. On the other hand, the claim is that Stack Overflow will still operate independently and make its own decisions. In the acquisition of a successful company that would be good news (they can keep doing what they're doing), but in a declining company that shouldn't keep doing what it's doing because it's not working, pressure from the new owner could help, if Prosus will actually apply that pressure.

Stack Overflow and the Stack Exchange network have been in decline for several years (since at least 2017 by my reckoning, some say longer). Some of that decline is due to outside factors and a lot is due to the company's actions. The good news is that most of the architects of those bad decisions are gone now, so the company could take the opportunity to say "y'know, we've been doing it wrong and we need to fix that" without anybody still there having to eat crow. The bad news is that, historically, this is not what Stack does; they double down on bad decisions, I assume because admitting mistakes is embarrassing. Several people still there who weren't part of those decisions now appear to be endorsing them -- whether due to internal pressure or because they drank the kool-aid I don't know.

Thus, the future is pretty unclear to me when it comes to how Stack Overflow treats its moderators and users. If Prosus allows them to operate independently, I expect they'll keep mistreating people even though they no longer have to placate departed leaders. If Prosus takes a closer look at what they've bought, they could make things either worse or better depending on what they decide and how well they execute it. On the current trajectory, I would expect the community, people's willingness to become moderators, and the quality of content to continue their current decline, and the invasiveness of ads and promotion of their Teams and Enterprise products to accelerate. SO is the gateway to the company's for-sale products; it doesn't matter to them independently. The company doesn't need quality and it does need to overcome SO's reputation of hostility, so they're willing to sacrifice the former to attempt the latter. The sad thing is that they could end up with neither even though it's actually possible to get both.

How sad -- the 800-pound gorilla is afraid of the little guy

Gosh, Stack Overflow thinks our little open-source project is a threat to them. I'm flattered! Also saddened.

For several years, Stack Exchange has allowed some of its sites to control some (local) ads. Communities can nominate ads that they think will be of interest to their own members, and if enough community members agree, those ads run. Mi Yodeya has ads to promote Sefaria, its own publications, and some other resources. Science sites have ads for professional and research organizations and publications. Several sites have ads that promote other related SE sites. Stack Overflow has ads for open-source projects looking for contributors.

The general philosophy is (or was) that the people building a site are the right ones to decide what to promote on that site -- they know their audience better than the company does. (Which, if you've seen some of the other ads the company runs across the network, is self-evident.1)

This week the company announced a change in qualifications for these community ads: Read more…

The Value of Aspirational Rules

In my part of the physical and digital world, discourse has gotten a lot more polarized in recent years. People are less likely to presume good intent and are more likely to take the worst possible view of another’s words. People are less likely to consider nuanced positions and instead take binary views: either you’re fully on my side or you’re a bad person. People are more likely to take things out of context or ignore the time and place in which something now objectionable was said.

People aren’t doing this for jollies; it happens because people are hurt, have been systematically hurt for years or decades or longer (personally or as part of a group), and want it to stop — and because fast, available, many-to-many communication has finally given people a platform to raise their voices. People want to make society safer and less hurtful — worthy goals! People want to be heard.

Owners and moderators of platforms and public spaces are now more mindful of their roles in public discourse. Many have concluded that aspirational rules like “be nice” or “treat others as you would like to be treated” or Victorian Sufi Buddha Lite don’t work. Instead, rule lists and codes of conduct grow more detailed as new ways to cause discomfort arise. Unfortunately, the authors of these tomes don’t always follow their own rules or consider how those rules can be misused.

We need to stop doing that. I don’t mean “don’t have rules”; I mean we need the aspirational, nuanced, people-oriented rules to be front and center, even though they don’t come with easy checklists. We need to use them with a dose of humanity and thoughtfulness, and we need to be willing to examine individual cases with transparency, working together with our communities. Read more…


Somebody on Twitter asked:

What did you learn in 2020 (besides how to make bread)?

I responded there:

  • To grow food in pots.
  • To cut men's hair.
  • To cook more new things.
  • That my cat loves me being home all the time.
  • More about community-building.
  • How to set up a nonprofit foundation.
  • To cut people w/no morals or human decency out of my life.
  • And yes, sourdough.

I was up against a character limit there, but I'm not here. Read more…

Election mechanics (not about the US)

A few days ago I was musing elsewhere about some online elections. Specifically, Stack Exchange has been running elections to replace all the moderators who have quit, and it's highlighting some weaknesses in their election scheme. Ranked voting is much better than "first past the post" but you still have to put the right checks in place.

If your election system uses ranked voting, think about how voters can reject candidates. The Hugo awards have "no award" as an automatic candidate in each category and you rank all candidates. My local SCA group lets you mark candidates as not acceptable and any who get 35% NA are removed, which gives the voters a veto when needed. Systems in which you pick N candidates lack this safety check.

"Cast N votes" doesn't let you distinguish between "this candidate is ok but not in my top N" and "I oppose this candidate". And even if you allow "not acceptable" marks on candidates (like my SCA group), you still need to allow ranking those candidates so voters can express "the clueless candidate before the evil one". If I recall correctly, my SCA group gets that part wrong; if you vote "not acceptable" you can't also rank the candidate, so you can't express degrees of unacceptability. If your goal is to deter NA votes that's a positive; if your goal is to elect people who are broadly acceptable then it's a negative. Read more…

Goodbye 5780

The year 5780 began for me, personally, on a terrible note caused by evildoers at Stack Exchange Inc. I won't say more about that here (I wrote plenty at the time). As above so below -- the door to their teshuvah remains open should they choose to correct their transgressions, but I, unlike the Holy One, do not hold out infinite hope for sinners to mend their ways. There are more important things in life to focus on.

5780 was the (sob) first year of the global pandemic crisis. On top of the sickness, the deaths, the changes in daily life that come with any pandemic, we in the US saw reckless endangerment, needless deaths, and political profiteering to levels even those of us already worried about the authoritarian trends of the toddler-in-chief did not imagine. He knew. And he let it run rampant anyway. Because he thought, somehow, that it would hurt his political opponents and not his own supporters. Because that oath he swore on taking the office, those words about serving the people (all of them, not just red states) and upholding the constitution and suchlike, was just fluff to him, not a commitment. Having thrown the people under the bus, he's now in full sabotage-the-election mode, betting that he can get away with it as he's gotten away with so much more. At worst, he figures, someone will manage to sue him years from now and he'll pay someone off. I fear for our country.

I fear for our country in other ways too. The white-supremacist-in-chief emboldened bigots ranging from crowds chanting against Jews to attacks on houses of worship to vigilantes fatally "protecting" the public from unarmed demonstrators to police who kill and recklessly endanger black and brown people who are already restrained and thus not threats. (Whites, on the other hand, generally get the benefit of the doubt.) And it would be easy to say that the bigot-in-chief is responsible for all this and we have only to remove him from office, but that's obviously not true -- the roots run much deeper. Our society has work to do.

And that work involves nuance, discussion, hearing and trying to understand others' perspectives, working together with people who are different, acknowledging the humanity of every person. Too many on the far right and the far left believe that they are keepers of the One Truth and that anybody who doesn't commit 100% to their view of truth is an enemy to be disparaged, cancelled, or killed. People are complicated, and attempts to paint monochrome pictures, while enticing to crusaders seeking us-vs-them litmus tests, are failures if the goal is to solve problems rather than to triumph. Too few people are willing to consider positions that exceed the length of a catchy slogan, but that's where the work has to get done.

But for all the trouble that 5780 brought, both personally and on a larger scale, it also brought some moments of personal light. Read more…

If at first you don't succeed, redefine success

Stack Exchange (may their venture funders wise up speedily in our day) lost a lot of moderators in the great evil of last fall and winter. They also fired most of the community managers who knew how the election machinery works, so they've been slow to replace them.

Then in July they announced changes to the moderator agreement, saying all new mods would be bound by it and all existing mods had 60 days to sign it or they'd be out. (This does not seem like smart timing given the previous paragraph.) The new agreement contains some troubling language, and some mods have said they won't sign it. I don't know how many; I didn't spend a lot of time digging around on their network. The deadline is tomorrow.

So, all in all, it's not surprising that they're having trouble filling all those moderator vacancies. It's also not surprising that they're trying to spin this to cover up their many mistakes. Read more…