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.

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…

2020

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…

Followup on SE's revised moderator policies

A few days ago I posted an analysis of Stack Exchange's new, still-flawed policies on moderator reinstatement. An employee who helped to write those policies challenged some of my feedback. This was my reply:

Read more…

Nine months later, some revised policies at SE

Back in October, Stack Exchange posted some policies for moderators to apply for reinstatement. I and many others raised concerns about transparency, fairness, and that the whole thing was a black box. Some also raised the concern that if a moderator was removed capriciously, without any valid process, it made no sense for that person to have to submit to this process that starts from a presumption of guilt. (The whole thing has a vibe of "we'll evaluate whether you're still beating your wife".) I posted my assessment there and also copied it in this journal for safe-keeping. (One never knows whether the original would survive, after all.)

This week they posted an updated version (feedback post). Let's see how it stacks up against the issues that were previously raised!

Read more…

Pesach 2020

Yisrael came to Egypt and the land flourished because of them. But a new Paro (pharaoh, king) arose who did not know them, and he enslaved them and made their lives hard. And not being content with that, he piled on misery, deliberately acting against them first by making their labors even harder and then by killing their children. When they protested, he prioritizing his own ego and divinity complex not only over justice but also over the well-being of his own people. At every opportunity to change toward the good, Paro hardened his heart and dug in more firmly on the path of evil.

This sounds familiar, on two different fronts.

On one front, the plague of Covid-19 has struck us (I am not asserting a source here) and, even as more people die in the US than anywhere else, even though we were repeatedly warned, our own Paro prioritizes his ego over the well-being of his people, ignoring pleas from governors who don't bow and scrape enough to him, stealing medical supplies from some of them to supply his friends. He prioritizes commerce over health, profit over protecting the vulnerable. The people cry out for rescue.

Now this is not the harsh reign of terror of the torah's Paro; while, sadly, many are stricken who could have been saved, we, unlike Yisrael, can take some measures to protect ourselves. Nothing is certain -- who knows whether that grocery delivery was safe? -- but we can hide at home and try to wait it out.

If we are able to work from home. If we have financial cushions. If we have homes. Never forget that not everyone does. I am fortunate in this regard; many are not. At my (tiny) seder this Pesach, I expressed gratitude for my household being saved (as far as we know), while noting that this year we do not have the national salvation of the Exodus. Many are still in danger.

And then there's the personal front. A Paro driven by ego, contempt for "lesser" people, and sometimes malice arose over me and mine, and did persecute some of us and seek to destroy -- not literally throwing people into the Nile, but metaphorically. There were many chances to correct that path, even saving face, but at each opportunity, the modern Paro hardened his heart, surrounded himself with complicit counselors, and dug in. At every turn, image was more important than teshuva, correcting misdeeds, and tzedakah, righteousness. Counselors who disagreed were driven out without even time for their bread (or health coverage) to finish.

I and many others escaped, and I am grateful for that even though we left both property and people behind. It is an incomplete exodus, as with Israel in Egypt -- rabbinic tradition says that many people feared the unknown and did not join the Exodus. Modern Paro's taskmasters continued to afflict some of those who remained, but also offered trinkets and promises to encourage everyone to stay. Paro's hope, it seems, is that if he gives the slaves straw again to make brick-making less onerous, the slaves will stay and be thankful. And Paro might be right in that.

A new Paro has arisen over the modern Egypt I fled, and has appointed a new vizier to speak publicly on behalf of Egypt. It is too soon to know whether the new Paro and vizier will correct past injustices or continue to sweep them under the royal carpet. Neither Paro nor vizier has sent messengers to all those who were driven out, and so for now Egypt remains Mitzrayim, the narrow place. I feel sorry for the many who remain and hope the new leaders will do teshuva, but Pesach encourages me to look forward and not backward, to a future of promise and not a past of narrow-minded oppression.

I am sad for the unnecessary victims of both Paros. Protecting myself is important and perhaps all I can do, but the Exodus is not complete so long as the oppression of those left behind continues. It was only at the sea of reeds that Yisrael was free from Paro. Sadly, the destruction at the sea of reeds was necessary because of Paro's hardened heart; it was not the desired outcome, and God rebuked the angels who sang triumphantly there. If Paro had ever done teshuva, widespread destruction could have been averted. I hope that our modern Paros will do teshuva and repair rather than enable ongoing damage.