Stack Overflow: still digging itself into a hole

Granted that I'm biased, but if you're still using Stack Overflow or Stack Exchange, either the free sites or the paid service, it's probably time to reconsider. Squandering community trust was already a core business practice, and now it seems like they're having trouble keeping the lights on despite massive cash infusions.

2023 has not been a good year for them. In May they laid off 10% of the company including 30% (!) of engineering, and diverted 10% of those who remained to chasing the AI hype train. Then they barred moderators from acting against ChatGPT-generated nonsense while lying about that policy to the larger community, causing an unprecedented nine-week moderation strike. Early in the strike, it came out that the CEO had personally ordered that the regular data dumps be secretly shut down. (They apparently did not secure the silence of the people they fired.) Those dumps were, from the beginning, a company commitment to the users as an insurance policy against the company turning evil -- you could always take the data and go elsewhere. Except now you couldn't. So that was kind of a big deal, and restoring the data dumps got added to the strike demands.

The strike eventually limped to a settlement, with the ChatGPT policy mostly rescinded, the dumps restored, and a company promise to communicate better. Many remained skeptical; company claims of caring about the community have not stood up to scrutiny in the past, and the current CEO seems especially disdainful. I guess people decide when they've hit the trust thermocline at different times; for some of us it came in 2019, some earlier, and some over the intervening years, and some haven't hit it yet. (This is why it's so hard for communities to migrate. Communities don't move; they fragment.)

But while they've been mistreating their communities, it looks like they've also been having trouble with their paying customers. Cory Doctorow's essay on enshittification) comes to mind.

On Monday they laid off another 28% of the company. The layoffs included another two community managers who had advocated for the community, reminding me of when they purged people who had pushed back against toxic company actions in 2019. Questioning the executive team is dangerous to one's career. People are asking some rather pointed questions about the latest action, not that we should expect any meaningful answers. I think the VP who opened that discussion did it to try to channel the venting, not because anybody in company leadership cares.

In the past, the tension at Stack Overflow was between investing in the business to make money and investing in the community whose content enabled a lot of the business. There were trade-offs -- can we make more money from ads without pissing off users, can we neglect maintenance the communities depend on to invest in the SaaS product, can we lower our quality standards to draw more beginner "engagement", etc. "Trade-off" implies that you're giving up something to get something else, but what they're currently doing seems to be bad all around -- they're failing to make money from their paid products and also failing their communities. Prosus, who bought Stack Overflow in 2021 for a jaw-dropping $1.8 billion, must be feeling like chumps right about now. The cost-cutting feels like leadup to a sale, presumably at a large loss, to stop Prosus's bleeding. I wonder how that will go. I'm so glad I don't have to care.