Blog: June 2023

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.

Three weeks into the Stack Overflow strike

I still don't have time for deep commentary (just got back from Origins; post about games to come), but there have been some developments since the Stack Overflow moderation strike began on June 5:

Data dumps

From very early on, Stack Overflow Inc. has published a quarterly data dump of all of the content (with attributions etc) from all network sites. This was the explicit insurance in case Stack Overflow turned evil in the future, like Experts Exchange, the company that led to SO being created, did. That stuff all uses the Creative Commons license and is meant to remain available.

Someone noticed that the June dump had not been posted on schedule, and asked a question about it. One of the people who was part of the 10% layoff in April replied, saying that the dumps had been disabled at the end of March with an annotation that they were only to be restored at the direction of the "Senior Leadership Team" (this usually means C-level executives). That drew some attention.

The company spent several days ignoring, then brushing off, then making excuses for this unannounced change. Nothing they said was credible. The strikers added "restore the data dumps" to their list of demands. After almost a week, the June dump was posted. No public promises have been made about the future yet as far as I know (though, see "was away for several days" above).

Spam overflow

With about 1500 curators (including about a quarter of moderators network-wide) on strike, and more importantly with the volunteer-run anti-spam automation turned off, the junk's been piling up. Reportedly, employees are now spending time handling spam, cutting into their day jobs.

While we're told that discussions are happening between representatives from the moderators and the company, they don't seem to have made much progress. A moderator told me that the company committed to keeping the data dumps coming, but it sounded like it was specific employees making the commitment, so the promise might not outlast their employment.

Rules for thee but not for me

In addition to violating the moderator agreement in a few ways (leading to the strike), the gen-AI-hype-chasing company recently announced that they are going to launch a site for "prompt design" (I am not making this up), but they're not going to use their existing process for creating communities because it doesn't work well, so instead they're looking for people to be part of a behind-closed-doors steering committee or some such, with the goal of launching the site by July 26.

The CEO is giving a talk about gen-AI hype at some conference on July 27.

Meanwhile, people who are trying to launch communities using the current process would like a word.

Meanwhile, over at Codidact...

Stack Overflow Inc. has given us a gift. We have lots of new participants and new activity, and some active efforts to build new communities here. Nice! We've gotten some questions about differences and was starting to think that we need an "immigration guide" and then someone reminded me of this early post asking about differences -- with a new answer from one of our new users. Nice.

It sounds like we might also attract some contributors on GitHub, which would be great. We have many things we want to do and not very many people.

Stack Overflow is alienating its community again

I don't have time for a full writeup of this right now, but here are the "highlights" of Stack Overflow Inc.'s latest community-affecting actions.

The CEO has recently gone all-in on generative AI and LLMs, the technology used by ChatGPT. He allocated 10% of the company to work on unspecified ways to use LLMs in their platform, and he's made some incoherent blog posts that scream "chasing the hype train". He also laid off 10% of the company including 30% of engineering and two community managers.

Stack Overflow the site does not allow answers written by ChatGPT. They worked together with community managers to develop that policy. Their moderators are seeing an increased workload because there's so much machine-generated crap showing up now, but the moderation tools and processes in place are handling it.

Or were. On Monday the company announced a policy that basically bars moderators from moderating this content. For further complication, the public announcement does not match what moderators say they were told privately -- they were actually told to start enforcing a strict hands-off policy without letting users know.

(The public post kind of back-handedly called moderators bigots, too. I guess at least this time they didn't smear anyone by name. But still... ick.)

People are, naturally, upset, both by a policy that invites non-vetted machine-generated "answers", and by the way it was done. Moderators' attempts to discuss these issues with the company have been rebuffed. One popular theory is that the CEO, having gone publicly all-in on LLMs, was embarrassed to find out that his flagship site deletes that stuff.

So there's going to be a strike. More than half of the Stack Overflow mods, many other mods across the network, non-moderator users who do the important curation tasks, and the user-run tools that detect spam and other problems across the network -- all shutting down. These people are all unpaid volunteers who are realizing that the company that relies on their free labor doesn't actually care about them.

Noticed in passing: there are a bunch of userscripts that power users use to make the site easier to maintain. These scripts are very popular. One of them now adds a banner to the top of the site that says:

We are calling for solidarity against actions taken by Stack Overflow Inc, which is posing a major threat to the integrity and trustworthiness of the platform and its content.


For more detailed background and why this matters so much to the people involved, I recommend this post from a former community manager.


Update, 2023-06-05: From Meta.SE: Moderation Strike: Stack Overflow, Inc. cannot consistently ignore, mistreat, and malign its volunteers (includes demands), mirrored on Stack Overflow Meta.