Stack Overflow needs a social-media policy

In response to the hot network questions mess, somebody posted saying that Stack Overflow needs to develop a social-media policy for its employees. This post cited my blog post. I added the following in support of this suggestion:

Adam and Shane were trying to help. They had (and have) good intentions. But they were the wrong people in the wrong place with insufficient training, and there's yet to be any retraction.

SE, like many other companies, needs to develop processes for responding to complaints from social media. It's a specialization of customer service, and we need people trained in it to be the ones doing it. We can't expect well-intentioned-but-untrained developers and SREs to respond in the best way when the crap is flying on Twitter.

One of the key customer-service points I've learned over the years (not my profession, but I've been pulled into escalations lots) is that there is a three-part formula to that first response:

  • Show empathy with the person who's complaining about a bad experience.
  • Ask for the information you need.
  • Commit to reviewing and acting on it (assuming your company will actually do that), but don't promise specific outcomes.

That kind of response looks something like this:

I'm sorry you've had a bad experience with our site. We want to make it better. Could you please send us the details of the messages you received so we can investigate and take appropriate actions? Thanks!

Once you have the information you need you can decide what to do about it and you make sure the complainer gets some sort of closure. If the complainer doesn't want to provide the information you need -- sometimes they realize they overreacted, or sometimes they were just trying to stir things up -- then all you can do is record what you have and move on. Not all people who are full of Twitter rage have problems you can solve.

Everything I've said here applies when people are speaking for SE. Employees (and moderators!) are allowed to have private lives full of personal opinions. The answer is not to say "you must not talk about us on social media"; that's unfair to the people involved and isn't going to work anyway. An important part of that training SE needs to develop, then, is about how to make those distinctions clear. Identifying yourself as connected to the company, even if your profile says "I don't speak for the company", doesn't usually work -- people see the tweet, not whatever other context you have elsewhere. I don't know what an answer that doesn't consume too many of your 280 characters looks like, but we are not the first people to need to solve this problem. Find out what the prior art is, as a first step.

SE also needs to develop better (any?) processes for damage control. Employees spoke for the company in ways that caused a lot of upset. They didn't mean to (see above), but it happened. That means SE now has two problems: the original complaint, and the complaints from the responses to the complaint. (Really three because there are root causes, but that's a separate matter.) Fixing the second problem -- the damage caused by the initial response -- is at least as important as addressing the original complaint. And I'm not seeing motion there, which is why I wrote that blog post.

The CM team is small and overloaded. I get that. But they sometimes have to handle emergencies, dropping other things if necessary, even if it's outside of work hours. (For example, reports of suicidal users get quick responses.) They probably don't have good tools for identifying and managing urgent matters, so that's probably something to look at. Pings in chat are not the answer here.

An employee appearing to endorse condemnations of specific SE users and communities on social media isn't sucidial-user-urgent, but it's pretty damn urgent. Shane didn't mean to pile on to an attack on our users, but that's how it came across to most readers. Adam didn't mean to dis IPS, but that's how it came across to members of that community (and many others). For Shane the private user or Adam the private user those would have been distasteful responses but on them; for Shane the SE employee and Adam the SE employee, those responses are on SE to mitigate.