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.

Moderators are chosen in community elections. In a full election the community actually gets to vote; for a beta site, there might be an election or SE might just appoint pro-tem mods. The latter takes away the community's ability to reject an undesirable candidate; the only way to prevent such an appointment is to round up enough people to have a contested election. There's nothing like a vote of confidence.

SE has held a few elections this year. The recent election on Stack Overflow, their flagship site, was anemic and dramatic.1 Another site had an election fail, which I believe had happened only twice previously.2 Two beta sites called for candidates and didn't get enough people to run an election (or fill out the slate in one case), so SE appointed the nominees who showed up, including two people who'd only been users for a few months.3

So they're changing tactics. Spanish Language (not beta) will try to have a full election as it should, but if they don't get enough people SE will appoint whoever shows up just like a beta-style election. They haven't said whether the resulting position will be for life, as in full elections,4 or temporary, as in beta elections.

And then there's Writing, a site they pretty much destroyed with their actions last fall, soon after the site had finally succeeded in shedding its cumbersome and inappropriate "beta" label after years of obstacles from SE. This community had actually had one of those beta-style elections last August, right before that happened, so SE promised it'd be at least six months before they held the regular election, in which beta mods need to stand again if they want to continue.

Then all hell broke loose and the winner of that election was, six weeks later, the only remaining moderator on the site. Meanwhile, many of the top users left, some deleting their accounts, and the once-healthy site tanked, shattered by SE's evil deeds.

But SE can't admit that, can't admit that they caused that, can't do what is in the best interests of the community by helping it effect an orderly transition.5 Having the appearance of a site, no matter how much it's limping, is better than admitting the obvious and closing it down.

The remaining mod is unhappy too but didn't want to walk away from a community she'd just gained a leadership position in. She stayed for the users, despite SE. She's said she checks in occasionally to do moderation tasks but she's not otherwise active. She, like hundreds of other people, changed her username to one protesting SE's actions. I think SE knows that if they announce a full election, requiring her to stand again, she might well not, and that could leave them with zero moderators.

So they dithered, doing nothing, and of course didn't repair any of the underlying problems that led to mods leaving, and then added that new mod agreement... Until a few days ago, when they announced a beta-style election. In one way it's a smart move; by not forcing the current mod to make a decision they don't push her out immediately, betting that she'll stay long enough to train the new mods. (They're happy to take advantage of people's kindness and sense of duty while showing none of the same in return.) But on the other hand, they're going to appoint whoever shows up, unless they miraculously get four or more candidates, and there are definitely some people on that site who shouldn't have access to mod tools and PII.

But I don't think SE actually cares about the health of any of the communities and their moderators. I think they're embarrassed by failed elections. We see a hint of this with that Spanish Language election, where they'll change the terms to get the outcome they need. Rather than admit another election failed they'll redefine success: hey, we got at least one body into the position so that's not a failure, right? Never mind who it is, never mind if a community is distrustful or disinterested enough to be unable to field candidates -- just find somebody who wants the position (don't bother to ask about motives), check the box, and move on.

I'd reach for the popcorn if this weren't all so sad.

1 Stack Overflow elections often get 15+ candidates and occasionally have hit the cap of 30. They had an election in July? August? that had seven candidates, including at least one protest candidate and one experienced mod who quit the network mid-election amidst drama in part of SE's making.

2 Photography had an election with two slots. Elections (other than for beta sites) require at least one more candidate than slots. They didn't make it, even after SE extended the nomination period to a second week. I forget if they got one or two candidates.

3 Pets and Computer Graphics. Pets lost two of its four moderators, and a third won't sign the new agreement. One of the new mods has only been on the site for about four months. Computer Graphics was looking for two mods and got only one candidate, also a new user.

4 For life or until they change the rules again.

5 We set up on Codidact, but a lot of people didn't migrate, just left. Writing was Codidact's first community and, in retrospect, we should have done some things differently. (It was kind of an emergency deployment, but still...) If SE actually cared about communities of people, they would have helped to effect an orderly transition from their network to Codidact and shut the now-dying site down. But that would look like failure for SE and SE can't be seen to have weaknesses, so that wasn't going to happen. I'm very sad that this happened to our community and that we didn't reinvigorate it on Codidact (in contrast to the Judaism Codidact community, which is off to a great start).