A bad workday's lessons on building Stack Overflow’s community
July 19, 2019 10:41 AM   Subscribe

The monster in this case is not one person, it was created when lots of people, even with great intentions, publicly disagreed with you at the same time. Even kind feedback can come off as caustic and mean when there is a mob of people behind it. No matter how nicely they say it, when a large group of people you really respect publicly challenge something you’ve done it can feel like a personal attack. 1600 words from Sara Chipps at Stack Overflow.
posted by cgc373 (29 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
 
I like that this is both totally obvious and amazingly insightful at the same time.
posted by Slothrup at 10:48 AM on July 19, 2019 [12 favorites]


Yes this exact dynamic used to happen a lot here on the blue in the old days. I distinctly remember a MeTa thread where I personally realized, I don't have to respond to every single comment I disagree with.

I stay out of the politics thread and other hot-button issues nowadays, no idea if anything has changed.
posted by muddgirl at 10:52 AM on July 19, 2019 [4 favorites]


However, when our more experienced users hear this feedback they ask us to provide them with definitive examples of WHERE EXACTLY people are being unfriendly? There isn’t a lot of name calling or anger, why are they being accused of being unfriendly?
The thing the author needs to realize is that 99 times out of 100, this is a bad faith argument - the author knows exactly why they're being considered unfriendly, but is relying on cultural norms to protect them by trying to rules lawyer their way out (hence the point of asking for "proof" of specific "unfriendly behavior".)

The answer, of course, is to not engage the bad faith and instead focus on the fact that people are feeling attacked. Anti-dogpiling and anti-brigading policies are important here, but the heart of it has to be a willingness to tell even your top users that their shit does stink, and they need to change or else be asked to leave.
posted by NoxAeternum at 10:57 AM on July 19, 2019 [19 favorites]


And the heavens opened and trumpets blew and angels sang...
posted by seanmpuckett at 11:02 AM on July 19, 2019 [1 favorite]


It's not always dogpiling, as least not with AskMe. Sometimes you'll get 10 or 20 people all composing what they probably feel is a tactful, measured response to someone's question. Then they all post their comments, and the suddenly it looks like the person asking the question has been ambushed. Which is why I think it's worth taking a step back and asking yourself "do I have anything unique to add?" Because a lot of the time, someone else will have said something similar already, maybe not as eloquently as you would, but well enough.
posted by pipeski at 11:03 AM on July 19, 2019 [20 favorites]


People are really, exceptionally bad at "being helpful" a lot of the time, especially in aggregate. It's a common feature; 100 people being helpful is often indistinguishable from a dog pile to a new user.
posted by bonehead at 11:09 AM on July 19, 2019 [9 favorites]


IME this kind of thing can be a lot worse on Slack and other IM clients. If one person delivers a criticism in public and ten of people favorite or "like" it, that's less brutal than eleven distinct private messages or one-on-one variations on the criticism.

Telling someone off in front of a lot of other people is sometimes harm reduction, because it reduces repetition and noise.
posted by bagel at 11:40 AM on July 19, 2019 [2 favorites]


I wonder if this was anything to do with the New Contributor Indicator that rolled out last year? Its Meta.SE commentary was a predictable pile of “I hate it”s and “It's bad” from high-participation users, making the WHERE EXACTLY? questions particularly painful. The whole article reads like a “it's not them being mean, it's you being too sensitive” screed justifying SE's bloody awful users.

Sometimes I wish for an SE theme that cuts out everything that's not code, so I can copy and paste without distraction like we're supposed to.
posted by scruss at 11:41 AM on July 19, 2019 [1 favorite]


The thing the author needs to realize is that 99 times out of 100, this is a bad faith argument - the author knows exactly why they're being considered unfriendly, but is relying on cultural norms to protect them by trying to rules lawyer their way out (hence the point of asking for "proof" of specific "unfriendly behavior".)

It certainly has been "weaponized" as such, but I think that it's also the case that for a subset of analytical-ish people, this is a natural reaction, if a poorly socialized one. As such, I think an education approach, "Here's what's helpful...", combined with structural changes to moderation is more productive than moderators blaming and shaming or banning.
posted by bonehead at 11:58 AM on July 19, 2019 [2 favorites]


It certainly has been "weaponized" as such, but I think that it's also the case that for a subset of analytical-ish people, this is a natural reaction, if a poorly socialized one. As such, I think an education approach, "Here's what's helpful...", combined with structural changes to moderation is more productive than moderators blaming and shaming or banning.

It's like clockwork - whenever it gets pointed out that techies have some bad behaviors with regard to socialization, the argument gets popped out that it's really just an education issue.

No, it's not. It's an entitlement issue, that keeps popping up over and over again. The problem is not that they don't know better - it's that they feel that in "their" space, they can behave like they do. And the answer isn't education - it's making it clear what will not be tolerated anymore, and sticking to that.
posted by NoxAeternum at 12:12 PM on July 19, 2019 [25 favorites]


Great essay. It's definitely a timely read for some of the difficult conversations we've been having in the Metafilter community recently.
posted by biogeo at 12:16 PM on July 19, 2019 [4 favorites]


I have wondered in the past if some kind of automated speed bump to discourage dogpiling could be useful.... mostly in the context of Twitter, but I think it could be helpful on Metafilter too.

“23 people have already made this point, are you sure your comment adds to the conversation?”

Well.. I don’t think the tech is there yet for such a sophisticated warning. But you could probably add a similar speed bump based on number of comments posted in a short time. If you’re getting more than 5 comments per minute on a given thread, add an extra “are you sure?” indicator.
posted by a device for making your enemy change his mind at 12:17 PM on July 19, 2019 [5 favorites]


“23 people have already made this point, are you sure your comment adds to the conversation?”
I default to lurking for exactly this reason. Sure, there are one or two specific things I might be the best person in the world to answer, but that feeling that any possible input I have is not only mostly unwanted but fundamentally useless is why I spent a decade watching MeFi without otherwise contributing. I'll still spend thirty minutes polishing a comment I'll delete before posting. (I'll force myself to post this...)

If this warning was added to all messages, I'd definitely go back to being an internet hermit. (Of course, that'd only be a loss if my comments provide value.) I worry that when adding anti-dogpiling tools, those involved might not be in a similar mindset given that they already are adding to the pile.

Triggering on frequency is still an excellent idea, though.
posted by Anonymous Function at 12:45 PM on July 19, 2019 [15 favorites]


And the answer isn't education - it's making it clear what will not be tolerated anymore, and sticking to that.

I mean, that is education.

But the only real way to solve for this kind of issue is to rethink the feedback mechanism altogether. It is like soliciting feedback for an employee from multiple peers - you don't include everything that everyone said. You take the comments, suss out the relevant points and rephrase so that points are only made once. In the case of SO, that could be done through human effort - like a moderator - or it could be done through a voting mechanism where the people providing the answers had to vote on the best or most relevant answer before it was published. Allowing multiple people to comment means you are likely to see the same thing said over and over.
posted by grumpybear69 at 12:49 PM on July 19, 2019 [4 favorites]



As someone who reads MeFi nearly every day for almost a decade now; this is a contributing factor reasons why I don't comment; someone has already commented something very similar or of the same substances that I was going to say. I feel making a comment without adding any additional insight or comment not already said, doesn't really contribute much to the conservation. (Ha, Anonymous Function's comment which was published as I started writing this, is a fine example of it happening). This is less the case on ask-mefi where it's more helpful for the asker to know what a plurality of mefi users would suggest.
posted by fizzix at 12:49 PM on July 19, 2019 [12 favorites]


Which is why I think it's worth taking a step back and asking yourself "do I have anything unique to add?" Because a lot of the time, someone else will have said something similar already, maybe not as eloquently as you would, but well enough.
A related problem is that it takes time to compose a good reply and most software makes it tricky to do so while following the thread so it often requires you to decide that it’s better to discard something which you spent time writing and possibly researching.
posted by adamsc at 3:36 PM on July 19, 2019


Triggering on frequency is still an excellent idea, though.

Perhaps! But maybe it incentivises getting your hot take in before the threshold triggers?
posted by sjswitzer at 4:14 PM on July 19, 2019 [2 favorites]


I have a few sites other than MeFi that I visit regularly. Only one of them1 has worthwhile comments. As for the rest, the comments are garbage. They're not usually problematic but they're more of a coffee klatch of regulars who just blather about whatever. And that's OK I guess, for that community? But completely not for me.

One site in particular2--which I regard as indispensable reading--has a weirdly insidery and uninformative commentariat, and disappointingly often the first comment is, quite literally, "First!"

(1) Strangely, it's BalloonJuice
(2) Sadly, it's Atrios's eschatonblog

posted by sjswitzer at 4:34 PM on July 19, 2019 [2 favorites]


a big yellow box that gives you the names of engineers that voted your question closed or deleted

Yikes! I mean I've always tended to be on the tougher side of feedback (though trying to improve), but even I wouldn't put in such a feature. I assume there's a historical/cultural reason, but...no.
posted by praemunire at 6:46 PM on July 19, 2019


The thing the author needs to realize is that 99 times out of 100, this is a bad faith argument - the author knows exactly why they're being considered unfriendly, but is relying on cultural norms to protect them by trying to rules lawyer their way out (hence the point of asking for "proof" of specific "unfriendly behavior".)

I strongly disagree with this - it can be a bad faith argument, but the effect described in the article happens on MetaFilter too, and given your posting history I'd bet $10 you've been on the top side of a pile-on here, that someone's been bruised by something you've said in the politics threads, and that what you actually said wouldn't seem out of line if we looked your your posting history. (The most abusive you get is towards Jeffrey Epstein, which, I mean, fair.)

There's an conflict between getting the behaviour that you want and being flexible over what you'll accept that no-one has convincingly solved. If you're aiming for high-quality discussion and some level of community-driven moderation, you're asking for the community to help enforce norms for you. On Stack Overflow, for instance, there are norms around what a good question is that are vital, because otherwise the question is probably unanswerable and often the question they've asked won't solve the problem they're having. There's no way to say "hello, and welcome, but your question is unanswerable and we can't help you unless you provide more information" that will get a warm and fuzzy reaction - finally someone's noticed and is here to help, except they're not here to help, they want me to get all this random crap that feels irrelevant to what I asked. It's even worse when it happens ten times.

MetaFilter instead relies on 24/7 moderation, which is expensive enough that they've had to build coping mechanisms and try and shift the business model to voluntary subscriptions. It's not clear at all that moderation scales - both Twitter and Facebook run moderation, and it's terrifying to imagine, given the experience those services provide, how much worse they'd be without what moderation they are doing.
posted by Merus at 10:18 PM on July 19, 2019 [6 favorites]


Stack Exchange is an awesome resource and high quality. I think this means one should not be eager to change it. Lots more lazy, bad questions wasting the time of people who give advice? How does that help? Ain't broke, don't fix it should be the default position.

The author here, of course, knows better than I do, so there must be good reasons and no doubt she will drive improvements. But as outsiders it is not obvious to me that we know that the culture should change.
posted by alasdair at 10:31 AM on July 20, 2019 [2 favorites]


But as outsiders it is not obvious to me that we know that the culture should change.

Stack Exchange's culture is hostile, contemptuous, and abusive - something that has been well documented. Saying that we should ignore that because it provides a "high quality" resource is cheerleading for Omleas.
posted by NoxAeternum at 11:27 AM on July 20, 2019 [3 favorites]


Stack Exchange's culture is hostile, contemptuous, and abusive
As an elected moderator on a Stack Exchange site that isn't about coding: we fight pretty hard against this, but it's a slog. I've drawn a lot of inspiration from the excellent moderation philosophy here at Metafilter, and I do what I can to spread the good news. How to be better at this is a frequent topic of discussion in the network-wide moderator chat.

(First "eponysterical" gets a friendly poke in the eye.)
posted by fantabulous timewaster at 12:20 PM on July 20, 2019 [1 favorite]


For search purposes: it's spelled Omelas.

---

Lots more lazy, bad questions wasting the time of people who give advice?

Raising that is equally taking a position, not a purely outside view :-).

StackExchange obviously have some control over this! They can tune how much effort you have to show before even being able to post a question. Their choice is to put a big [Ask Question] button on the frontpage, which allows posting without even creating an account. Because the sites need both questions and answers. They then rely on this "peer pressure" for quality control.

On at least one occasion I've called out some really daft behaviour from another long-term user. There is room to improve the culture. (I also credit MeFi for helping me think about this stuff). Obviously the culture is influenced by the site mechanics. IMO there's not enough humanity in the culture to counterbalance the mechanical aspects. And there's not enough space to develop it either.

There's a specific example I think about. One of the surprisingly unique aspects is the comment mechanism. The policy is comments can be deleted when they're no longer needed. There is literally a flag reason to handle this. It's like squashing git commits rewriting history. My issue is when the history disappears, it removes any possibility of learning from the most effective comments. Imagine if there was something more like a chat log, and comments were just marked as [resolved].

I've mostly opted out of the "review" feature. I think I understand the mechanics it offers me, but I don't know how to use it humanely.
posted by sourcejedi at 12:39 PM on July 20, 2019 [1 favorite]


I use stack overflow daily to ask and answer questions. It is so much better than other Q&A sites, and especially forums. The worst SO interaction pales in comparison to dealing with the petty dictator "power users" in forums.

I agree that it isn't perfect, but that other MF thread was just way over the top. That surprises me because SO has a lot in common with Ask Metafilter - the asker must ask an answerable question, and the responses must address the question. You can't reply with noise like "why do you want to know?" on either site and not expect to get your answer deleted (or downvoted). You can't post off-topic comments. The Q&A is there for the people participating in it as much as it's for future users with the same problem.

I see new users struggle with the site, and I think more handholding is needed. For example a lot of people don't seem to know that you can restore your lost reputation by deleting your downvoted answer or question.

I've been frustrated by things like my question being flagged for deletion by a know-nothing mod before. (Thankfully that has never lead to a deletion). But I can't let that turn me off of the site because no site is perfect, and I know I'd be missing out on such a (yes) quality source of information.
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 5:36 PM on July 20, 2019 [2 favorites]


I think the older MF thread is a good citation for "too many developers experience[d] Stack Overflow as an unwelcoming or hostile place". (Quoted from the official Stack Overflow blog post.) The thread had various people giving their direct personal experiences. A couple of links to Meta Stack Exchange discussions which get ugly. And various acknowledgements that there's a ton of useful information in SE answers (and questions).

Stack Exchange mitigates some problems seen in technical forums etc. That's part of what let it grow so large. Now we have this large site, the problems it doesn't mitigate are also scaled up, and have significant effects on the world. The story of tech!

I think this means one should not be eager to change it.

I want to point at the early comment by perplexion in the old thread :-). It took ten years for Stack Overflow to present new askers with something better than an empty text box.

They will have to actively keep up this energy of acknowledging problems, belatedly providing inline question prompts on SO, and so on. Any proposed changes will be subject to inertia: commercial considerations, and pushback from existing culture. I'm glad to hear there's still some serious effort on this.
posted by sourcejedi at 5:20 AM on July 21, 2019 [2 favorites]


I am pretty good on the tech side and I know when I could use a good resource for fixing the problem. SO - hell no.

Some of the software I am using is tech-ancient - I mean DOS systems, FoxPro - stuff that was ugly when it was first created and only exists on my systems because I can't be bothered dumping thousands of files to print. SO tells me that I am an idiot for not upgrading and that is about the extent of the useful advice.

Life's too short
posted by Barbara Spitzer at 6:19 PM on July 21, 2019 [1 favorite]


“SO tells me that I am an idiot for not upgrading and that is about the extent of the useful advice.”

Sorry, Ms., Spitzer. That might’ve been me when I was much younger. Now that I’ve been in the tech industry for...um...a LONG time, I know that there’s a special hell for those kids. One where they have to maintain COBOL and VSAM databases. Forever.
posted by shorstenbach at 2:42 PM on July 24, 2019


And now Barbara has set me off. I apologize in advance.

If I see another whippersnapper tell someone “duh, just use Linux” or “duh, my Mac does that”, I will reach through the internet and well...I’m a pacifist and this is Metafilter...so I’ll just stew, I guess.

Fortunately, I see far less of this on SO than I used to, but there’s still quite a bit of “can you help me with this obscure problem, and by they way, I can’t upgrade to version X because I’ve got 500 poorly-designed legacy applications running on that version and ONE developer to keep them running” get a response of “just upgrade to version X”.

I guess folks who have been in the business as long as I have just need to step up, discard our usual curmudgeonly demeanor, and provide some helpful answers.

But I’m TIRED, and I’ve got these legacy applications that break every day, so...
posted by shorstenbach at 2:59 PM on July 24, 2019


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