Rantings of a Grumpy Old Man
sbi is leaving…
No, I’m not leaving the building, but I’m leaving the upper floor to move down a bit.
But let’s start at the beginning.
In the beginning, there was Usenet, where I have been seen (under my real name) since about 15 years ago. After a decade in comp.lang.c++.moderated (with periods of activity interspersed by periods of absence), I had learned whom to trust unquestioned no matter what they said about a certain topic. But a few years ago I started to think that I had enough of finding my name all over google, discussing themes as diverse as C++, raising children, and the books of certain authors.
In July 2009 I hit stackoverflow.com, a Q&A site for programmers (and meanwhile the blueprint for dozens of such sites which were started under the label StackExchange). It wasn’t exactly love at first sight. But the site certainly has a rather strong appeal to programmers, and it hooked me, too. (If you know Stack Overflow, just skip ahead to the next vertical space.)
Questions are tagged, and you can filter by the tags. Questions and answers are voted upon by the community and are by default sorted by their votes, so that good answers tend to bubble up pretty quickly. The votes to your answers (and, to some extend, your questions) make you assemble “reputation”, measurable and comparable in a concrete number. The higher your reputation, the higher the privileges you enjoy. At a certain level of reputation, there’s little difference between you and a site moderator. Certain achievements and activities will grant you badges.
On Stack Overflow all this actually works and it works well. The community cleans up clutter, closes duplicate questions, fixes small errors and nudges answerers to fix the more glaring ones, and the voting and reputation system let’s good answers bubble up and allows you to estimate the credibility of the users. Last I looked it had far in excess of 300,000 users, more than a million questions, and even the amount of questions coming in on a day in a tag of medium activity (like C++) are impossible to handle by a single human being. If you come with a not too esoteric and well-formulated question in one of those tasks during the North American business day hours, you will have an answer within minutes.
The site also comes with a nice set of brightly shining principles. Its core mission is described as an attempt to “make the Internet a better place“. The FAQ describes the site as a Wikipedia-like, collaborative effort and asks you to be nice, tolerant, and honest. The about page says “We don’t run Stack Overflow. You do.” The moderators are elected by the community.
For one year and seven months I have breathed that.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not suffering from the delusion that I am a vital pillar of the Stack Overflow community. My reputation on the meta site, which is where policies for running Stack Overflow are discussed, and bugs and feature requests are logged, is rather pathetic. With little more than one dozen questions, and even less than a dozen answers, I am absolutely at the low end of the spectrum. I have accounts on only eight of the several dozen StackExchange sites, and not much reputation on any of those either.
But on Stack Overflow proper this is different. I didn’t just ask a few questions when I needed help. Within a year, I answered well over 1,000 questions, became one of the top ten users in the C++ tag, and, as the site tells me, I am among the site’s top 0.25% users. (As I write this, I hold rang #99 in the all-time rank of the more than half a million users of all StackExchange sites). I have more than 175 badges, two gold ones among them, and I casted more than 4,000 votes. I was one of those who started the C++ FAQ effort on Stack Overflow, my contribution to the FAQ, an article about operator overloading, got a lot of attention on reddit, I’m one of the owners and a rather active member of Stack Overflow’s C++ chat room. So I think I can safely say that, among more than 300,000 users, I left a mark or two on the site, and that I am one of the more responsible users caring for the site.
However, recent events have brought me t the edge of actually leaving Stack Overflow. What happened?
First, a change was made to the site. That’s not uncommon. The Stack Overflow team is constantly hacking at the site, and constantly publishing small changes. The way this happens (stealthily, unannounced, suddenly) has been complained about quite often, but it seems the team is unwilling or unable to take this process to a more professional approach. Currently, a question on meta.stackverflow.com is the only point where changes are, hopefully, recorded.
So I wasn’t too surprised when I suddenly found the envelope icon gone from the top of the Stack Overflow page, even though through it users would access most of the vital every-day information. (Which questions of mine have new answers? Which of my answers have been up/down-voted or commented upon? Which of my comments got a reply?)
Not being a Stack Overflow newbie anymore, I hit the meta site and searched for the question(s) that would inevitably be there. There were indeed several such questions and one had already crystallized as the one the others were closed as duplicates of. As is so often the case when an aspect of a user interface is changed, this question and the first few answers all agreed in simply wanting to have back the old user interface.
Well, at least that way I knew it was a site-wide roll-out, affecting all users, and I wasn’t alone in being confused. So I set off exploring the new UI and trying to do the things through it I did using the old one. All in all, I didn’t think it was as bad as some painted it, but it missed at least one vital feature that the old UI had (as someone so aptly commented: “And how the heck am I supposed to figure out what answer some bozo downvoted me for?!”) and implemented access to some of the more common tasks in a somewhat clumsy way.
So I provided my own answer to that question on meta, saying exactly that: all in all it’s not bad, but these here are shortcomings that should be addressed. Mine was the third answer and the first one that wasn’t just negative and wanting the old UI back.
A while later, one of the Stack Overflow founders and owners, Jeff Atwood, posted an answer, too. This, however, more or less mocked those who wanted their envelope UI back, stating that the old UI was allegedly hated a lot anyway, that the new UI (for which several answers by then listed rather serious shortcomings) was much better, and would be improved upon over the coming days. He also requested ideas for improvements. Over time, more answers were added, some in Jeff’s mocking tone, but in opposite direction, some objectively listing UI problems and making concrete suggestions how to fix these. An incredible amount of comments was added, too, some quite heated, few in favor of the change, fewer still in favor of the way the change was rolled out, and basically none in favor of the way the critique was dealt with by Jeff. In the heated discussion many people spend within minutes their daily limit of votes for questions, answers and comments.
Over several hours, that question acquired 18 answers, rose to become one of the highest-ever voted questions on meta, and Jeff’s answer, mainly mocking the critique rather than addressing it, became one of the most down-voted answers ever on meta, and certainly by far the most down-voted answer ever by one the team.
Still, Stack Overflow’s voting principle worked pretty well: those answers providing concrete feedback for what to improve on the new UI got up-voted to the top very effectively. In fact, of the most up-voted five answers four suggested concrete changes required, with only one of these starting out that the users considers the change a regression, before suggesting specific improvements. (The other one pointed out that the old UI is still available through a the old URL, although the site itself features no link anymore.) The next two even stated that the users never liked the old UI anyway. Of the next three, two were user-side scripts to mimic the old UI, and one listed more than two dozen similar questions regarding the missing old GUI, and went on to thoroughly analyze the reasons for such an outcry of the community. The next one made another concrete suggestion for a change.
If you counted, you will have found that this is just short of two thirds of the 18 answers being much to the point. And of the remaining third some also sported several concrete suggestions for improvement. You can look at the question and its answers in google’s cache to make up your own opinion on this.
You need google’s cache to view that page (and god knows how long it will be preserved there) because this question was locked and deleted (presumably) by Jeff, because it, allegedly, it sported “nothing but whining and bickering”. Add to that the fact that many comments had been deleted earlier already, some of them because they referred to comments which were deleted because they referred to comments which were deleted because they referred to comments that were deleted (and I am not exaggerating here) for being “noise, offensive or spam.” Of course, without taking away the fuel, it’s pretty useless to stomp on such a brightly shining fire. Therefore, within a day, numerous questions shot up on meta asking why that question got deleted, so instead of quenching the fire, it was smeared all over the site.
The one of these follow-up questions that made the race to being the one the others get closed as duplicates of was the question asking what topics can, and cannot be discussed on the site. Again, Jeff’s answer to that proved to be immensely unpopular, gaining about as many down-votes as it gained up-votes, making it end up at the bottom of the stack of answers. What bubbled up instead were answers saying that, because “perception is everything”, “deleting a post when people are accusing you of not listening to them is not a great idea” or that this is merely the common censoring that happens on meta all the time.
Again, many comment discussions sprouted up on that question and its answers, most of them much less heated and far more to the point of the question. Basically, Jeff and a few high-rep meta users (or even moderators) defended the deletion, while the community found it enraging. What shocked me in these discussions was that even Grace, whom I had known as a calm and rational voice on meta, managed to mis-label me as someone just wanting the old I back (which I didn’t; see above) , and accused those offering views that disagreed with Jeff’s point of view as “anti-team”. Grace, when made aware of this, immediately revoked those statements (in fact, she deleted those of her comments herself) and apologized. But even Grace falling for this first nevertheless gives a pretty good impression of the attitude and atmosphere with which the critique was countered.
What shocked me even more, however, was the fact that, after a few days, most of these comment discussions disappeared over night, with no explanation given, but obviously in order to quench dissenting views. (Anyone now bumping into that question will be left wondering how I could refer, in a still existing comment to Shadow Wizard’s answer, to an analysis in a non-existing comment under ire_and_curses’ answer, why Jeff’s answer was downvoted so much without a single comment as to why people disagree with him, and why the two most up-voted answers got up-voted without a comment as to why people think they are so good.)
Apparently, we learn from this that the question which topics can or cannot be discussed in itself is on the list of topics not to be discussed. I see no other way to explain the deletion of whole comment discussions in this question.
I’d call this “ironic”, if it wasn’t so terribly sad and stupid. To wit: We are talking of a site named “meta”, with the sole purpose to give Stack Overflow’s users a channel to discuss Stack Overflow itself. Of course, it’s only the most committed users that even log into meta. That’s not even 10% of the Stack Overflow’s users, and this number already includes users coming to meta from serverfault.com and superuser.com which never logged into stackoverflow.com, as meta serves as a discussion ground for all three of these sites. So whenever someone utters an opinion on meta, you have a 90% chance that you hear the opinion of a user that cares, and even a pretty good chance of hearing the opinion of one of the vital pillars of the community. In my book, silencing those users is as stupid a mistake as you can make running a community-driven website.
Just in case anyone still unsure about this: This is not at all what it said on the package. This is not how self-competent community leaders deal with critique. This is as far from a community managing itself by a painful democratic process as it can get. And this is most definitely not “making the Internet a better place”.
Instead, this is the way an unconfident self-proclaimed elite stomps on dissenting views, being afraid to have their actions reviewed and evaluated in public, attempting to cover up for earlier failures, with objective critique addressing a process invariantly painted as misguided individuals blindly opposing the persons implementing that process, and a gag order to choke what, in result of that, said elite considers the stinking resistance, all the while asserting they are acting in the best interest of the public. (Trust me on this. I know exactly what I’m writing about here. I spent more than 20 years of my life in such a system.)
That whole disaster got me wondering. Are all of Stack Overflow’s shiny features combined even worth the price of giving up that one important feature that’s commonly referred to as “freedom of speech?” Maybe Usenet, for all its deficiencies wasn’t such bad a place at all. At least it’s impossible to issue gag orders there. Should I leave the building, give up on Stack Overflow for socializing with fellow-programmers, and just go back to Usenet?
To be honest, even after many days thinking abut this I’m still not sure.The current thoughts revolve around not pouring so much energy into the site anymore. It is still great if you have a specific programming question and you need it answered quickly. But if you have a point of view on some matter regarding the site itself that might dissent from what the owners think, you’d better not waste time and energy on it, because this might very quickly turn what at first sight seems to be a democracy into a restrictive gagging regime.
So as for now, I’m not leaving the building, but I’m not going to put as much energy into the site itself anymore. It simply doesn’t deserve it.