Why I'm leaving Stack Exchange

Posted on November 15th, 2019

For those of you who haven’t paid attention to the recent mess on Stack Exchange, there’s quite a few things going on. The current issues started with SE firing a moderator over a change to the CoC (Code of Conduct) that enforced correct pronoun use. SE has stated it was a violation of the (at the time) current CoC, but they’re still unwilling to tell the moderator in question what she did. There’s a recap here.

I want to be clear before I continue: I support the changes to the Code of Conduct, but I personally believe the implementation should’ve been done in a way that doesn’t put targets on us LGBTQ+ users. The strictness of the CoC has made free speech and coerced speech be thrown in as arguments against the CoC. People see the CoC as a “do this or else” rather than as a way to implement guidelines that give support to preferred pronouns, as well as a way of handling cases where someone intentionally misgenders as a way of being offensive.

Note

I’m not a moderator, nor am I a staff member. I’m one of a few million users participating in the Stack Exchange network.

Old background

There’s quite a lot of background leading up to why the situation escalated the way it did. This isn’t strictly related to the current situation, so feel free to skip to the next part.

Communication between the company and the users has been broken for a long time. One of the early indicators of this was the 2013 strike. The “fix” was fuzzied numbers, or basically hiding the true amount of posts in the queue. I’m not sure if this is still the case, but I imagine it is. The volume has gone up significantly since, so I’m having a hard time believing it isn’t fuzzied.

The review invalidation percentage is at about 20-30% according to the company, which is a pretty bad sign.

In 2014, Stack Overflow was considered negative, at the same time as question quality dropped. My best guess here is that an increased amount of volume, with few users to handle them, is related to negativity. This is entirely understandable, but you can probably see where this is going.

Eventually, SO was considered toxic and got caught in the scope of April Wensel, starting the chain of events leading to the welcoming wagon. The welcoming wagon is most likely the fuel behind the later CoC change, which I’ll get back to later.

Around May-July 2019, the heat escalated. In May, a review strike broke out. In late June, SO got a new home page that looks more like a paywall. Said home page still exists.

Aside this, feature requests had been ignored for a long time. The site failed to scale, moderation tools were (and as of writing this, still are) suboptimal, and simply can’t provide users on the receiving end of moderation with enough help. Too much input, too few processors. New users consider SE an elitist place. From my somewhat biased point of view, it isn’t - the problem lies in moderation tools. Unfortunately, SO being considered elitist and toxic results in some users (not always new) going on a rant about how toxic SO is in, ironically, a toxic way.

There’s more or less something for everyone to complain about, for both new users and veterans alike. The nature of the problems make the other group look like the problem. Some of the people moderating blame the askers and answerers, some of the askers and answerers blame the people moderating, and both groups seem to forget the real problem lies in the unscaled moderation tools. On the bright side, SE is claiming they’re preparing to ship some new feedback tools, which might mitigate some of this.

Half the reason this happened was because communication broke down between the community and the company, which we’re still feeling today. The lack of communications and improvements has caused a lot of tension, which is why I’ve mentioned these things. They establish a background as to why the current situation exploded. In addition, they’re factors that have bothered me personally, but on their own is something I considered negligible. I did go on a strike because of it, but after feature requests started being implemented, I returned for a while.

The current situation

The current situation is a complex build of multiple factors. The three primary factors are the (presumably illegal) license change, Monica being fired, and the CoC change. In addition to these, there’s also others that factor in, namely the hard ad policy and the continued communication breakdown, presumably along with some others I’ve missed.

Before I continue, I need to stress that this is my opinion, and this is how I view the situation. Other people involved in the situation might say it’s built up differently, but this is my view that affects my decision. I’m still trying to stay as neutral as possible when covering what the events themselves imply.

Also, note that some of these phases overlap or run in parallel.

Phase 1: Ads

In June 2019, SE introduced advertisements across the network. This on its own is perfectly fine - they need to pay their employees and cover their operational costs. The problem is that they’re allowing animated ads, and have let a lot of bad ads through. Some examples include outright scams, ads of malicious behavior (notably ads that redirect the page), NSFW ads, and generally placing inappropriate ads on the page. Some of these issues are discussed in various answers on the previously linked question.

The major problem starts escalating when a question is asked as to whether SO is trying to start audio. An answer got posted, that still stands, that explains it’s used by the ads to fingerprint their users. There’s currently a history of tracking, including Facebook attempting to track users through the Graph API, which SE uses to serve profile pictures from people who used FB to create their account. People who linked with FB can pick their FB profile picture as their SE profile picture, but it’s served straight from the Graph API. More on that here.

The ad issue is where things started going down the drain, for real. An early reply on the post asking about the audio got a reply from Nick Craver, saying they weren’t fine with it. Two months later (August 2019), they changed their mind. They had been “reassured” by their ad provider it was fine, and that it wasn’t used for tracking. This is, from what I’ve understood, a blatant lie. Further concerns weren’t answered by the company, thus starting a series of major events of concerns that go unanswered.

In July, concerns and questions on a different matter also went unanswered. I personally have an answer on that question that still hasn’t been answered. I even asked direct questions in chat, and got ignored. I consider this a start, but not big enough to mark the beginning of users being ignored, because they were still involved, even if they didn’t say much. In the ad event, they posted and ignored absolutely everything.

Phase 2: Licensing

In September 2019, SE announced they had changed the license from CC-By-SA 3.0 to 4.0. I personally have no problem with the license, but the nature of the change brought up doubt from underlying situations. An answer posted to said announcement suggested it wasn’t legal, a stance we still haven’t gotten an answer to.

An answer was posted later that explained their reasoning, but didn’t explain whether it was legal or not. None of the concerns posted by their users had been addressed. The situation, at least for me, isn’t as much about the license as it is about the nature of the change. If they change it to CC-By-SA 4.0 illegally, how are we protected from a sudden change to a license that doesn’t allow as open use?

Phase 3: Monica

This is the big one and one most regulars on SE have heard about, along with phase 4 (the CoC change).

There’s quite a few components to this, but to sum it up: Monica had concerns about the new CoC. It was shared with moderators before it was released, hence the concerns. From my understanding, the concerns were about the continued use of genderless language. Monica has, again from what I understand, employed a genderless writing style, and asked whether that okay to use or not. I do not have all the details here, but I’ve seen the TL transcript leak and I can’t find anything that comes off as a CoC violation. I don’t agree with everything said in that transcript, but she wasn’t looking to hurt anyone. Why this lead to her being fired is something noone can answer aside SE.

To be honest, there are worse moderators out there. She wanted to continue using genderless language, and an early draft of the CoC is said to not have a clause specifying pronoun use was on the level of “where you use it normally”. The first version of the CoC at least shows this: it mixed the use of “must use preferred pronouns when specified” along with “as you naturally write”, which I bet caused confusion. This is a story for later.

Phase 3.1: Moderators leave

Following this change, many moderators left. There’s said to be over 600 moderator positions across the network, and with some moderators spanning multiple positions, about 500 unique moderators. There are exact numbers on this somewhere, but I’m not going to look for it. Someone sent me a comment a while ago, but this was much earlier in the events, at which point 10% of the moderator positions were vacant. By my current guesstimations, the number should be somewhere between 10% and 20%, unless there’s lots of moderators silently stopping in protest.

Some moderators left in support of Monica, others in protest of the future CoC change. Some left for their own reasons, and one of the people who left before Monica was fired wrote a resignation notice that hit me hard. It explains a pattern of essentially abuse against LGBTQ+ moderators. I ran for moderator back February 2019, before this entire drama started, and after seeing that resignation notice, I was glad I lost. I dodged a bullet by not getting elected, but I feel sorry for those who have to go through that. Seeing that in an online community is a massive red flag regarding a future.

After some of the first moderators left, we got three official responses. These were from the same person involved with the removal of Hot Meta Posts, but really shouldn’t have been posted ever. These are the answers (not in order): on meta.SO, on judaism.SE, and on CS.SE. These answers were more or less copy-pasta, and personally made me angry. Aza’s resignation notice explained how community managers used moderators as expendable resources, and this just made that seem much more realistic. The answer makes it seem like all she thinks these moderators deserve is copy-pasta, hence why I said it would’ve been better not to post it.

Phase 3.2: Media

A while into the drama, a newspaper (The Register) reached out to SE to get a statement. They did get one. Now, at this point they’ve ignored both their community, as well as the person they fired who requested to know why specifically, but they still reached out to the media, and labeled Monica a bigot.

Again, I don’t have all the details, but this is so far over the line I lost all faith in SE in just a few minutes of reading. I’m still not sure if firing Monica was the right thing to do (again, I don’t have all the details), but regardless of whether it was the right decision or not, going to the media like that is so incredibly wrong. They fail to answer concerns from their own community, and even fail to answer concerns from the person they fire, and decide to talk to the media.

Moreover, and I’ve been around long enough to see both real hate as well as Monica’s behavior, and I can’t see anything that’s nearly as bad as SE claims her behavior is. There’s a lot worse mods out there in terms of behavior and LGBTQ-friendliness. I’ve run into a few this past month and a half, who still have their diamonds. There has also been one or two moderators who explicitly said they had no intention of enforcing the new CoC. The inconsistency between how the cases were handled has made me doubt the legitimacy of the claims that there was a violation. SE has also lied in the past (see the ad tracking situation).

Moreover, according to Monica, there was another moderator who was truly rude, and that event went without consequences. SE claims they want to be inclusive, but at the same time protect moderators like that, and that annoys me more than I can accurately describe.

You can probably figure where this is going by the title. On October 28th 2019, Monica started a GoFundMe campaign to take legal action against SE.

The campaign is still running and the process has started, but on November 14th, SE made a monumental mistake and decided to shut down URLs to the campaign. This had the exact opposite effect and made users resort to a bunch of other things. A creative user changed their profile pic to a QR code with a link to the fundraiser. By disallowing these links, more users (from what I can tell anyway) are now changing their usernames or coming up with other creative approaches to get attention to the fundraiser. The fundraiser also gained a lot of traction, and SE once again appears as a bad actor in this.

I left a comment on there I expected to be answered, and it took two additional comments - one specifying I was actually asking and one saying I considered the silence as an affirmative answer before I actually got a response. This broke a silent front we’ve been given by the Director of Public Q&A (the person who posted the copy-pasta, took lead on the Hot Meta Post removal, and presumably more I’m not aware of). I was happy that I actually got a reply, but I worry what the reasons could be for me needing to push to get an actual answer. It wasn’t quite the answer I was hoping for, but the reply to the letters haven’t been cancelled, and that’s good enough for me at the moment.

Phase 4: The Code of Conduct is released

Phase 4.1: Apologies

The first “apology” was posted on October 3rd, and was about as bad as the copy-pasta. The Director of Public Q&A again took the lead, and the post made a dehumanizing comparison with “shipping software on a Friday” when referring to Monica’s firing. Gold and green forests were promised, while the core of the problem was ignored.

The second “apology” was posted 3 days later (October 6th 2019). This was very, very promising and I initially said “thank you” when I posted an answer, because I finally thought SE cared. Again, more gold and green forests were promised, but it was a significant step in the right direction.

Do you think they cared though? They didn’t.

Concerns and clarification requests were ignored. This is also where Monica comes in - they said they’d send an email to Monica, which they did, but then subsequentially ignored further clarification requests.

Additionally, they apologized to LGBTQ+-users because their handling of the situation hurt us. In the following weeks, they did the same thing again when they released the new CoC. I’ve personally never flagged as much rudeness in under a day from that many unique users as I have in relation to the CoC.

And it doesn’t end there - there’s an external threat that potentially makes LGBTQ+-users unsafe on SE. SE’s hard CoC push alongside firing and ignoring Monica made LGBTQ+ users get blamed, at least in some cases. Had the situation with Monica been resolved before the CoC push, said threat might never have appeared. The way SE handled the release of the CoC has been extremely horrible.

Phase 4.2: The letters

On October 6th, 4 days before the initial CoC release, a lot of mods created an open letter to SE. From what I can tell, this has been in the works for a while. This addressed concerns regarding the community as a whole, in addition to concerns from LGBTQ+-users as a separate letter.

On the 8th, we were promised a reply At Some Point:tm:. The letters are to this day unanswered, but after I pushed a staff member for a reply on the post where staff said they would start removing fundraiser links, I got a reply saying they’re working on some features they expect to release in the next week and can start sharing some progress. It has already been over a month since the letters were released, and that they’re still unanswered is, in my opinion, a red flag.

Another red flag is that the Director of Public Q&A, who took point on the letters too, ignored status requests for over a month. I pinged her a few days in a row before OP of the question asked me to stop over unwanted notifications, without any reply. Half the reason I did that was to remind her there were people expecting answers. The lack of replies is now possible to classify as intended. She had multiple reminders, and chose to ignore them. SE continuing to ignore their users is very bad in terms of a future. Currently, I don’t see SE having one.

Phase 4.3: The release

The first version of the CoC FAQ was released on October 10th 2019. The FAQ was deleted when the new one showed up, but I’ll get back to the new one later.

This version was received with extreme negativity and rudeness. There’s a lot of answers, and even more deleted answers, many of which are outright rude. There’s been pronoun mockery, mockery against LGBTQ+, and lots and lots of personal attacks.

Fortunately, in spite of what a tweet from an employee would have it, far from all the people opposed to the CoC were rude. There were lots of improvement suggestions to the CoC, which took a lot of time to be implemented, and there was a lot of valid concerns raised.

Unfortunately, it created a further divide in the community, and caused a lot of internal fights. At this point, MSE was down from four to two moderators: one (Monica) was fired, and another decided to take a break. The moderator who took a break returned later, but flag handling speeds were horribly low. It let discussions taking a turn for rudeness get completely out of control before someone stepped in.

Phase 4.4: The new release

The second version of the CoC was released on October 23rd, 13 days after the first version was posted. Communication on the first one broke down, and concerns went unanswered.

The second one also asked for feedback, and what do you know, not too long after, communication breaks down. They did make an effort to keep up with some of it at least, which definitely is better than nothing. I personally think the second version of the CoC is a lot better, and while it has been overall better received, there’s still opposition. Fortunately, I haven’t seen any further trolling attempts - I guess we got the trolls out of the system.

I need to clarify this: I’ve mentioned opposition against the CoC explicitly a few times, but this isn’t because I think it’s bad. Opposition is necessary if it is to grow to become as optimal as possible. I was opposed to the phrasing of the first version of the FAQ, mainly because of the way it felt like it was showing the whip and hiding the carrot. Some people have also asked how it was intended to be enforced, which I can’t personally see being done easily. Don’t get me wrong, it can still be done, but it requires a lot of effort.

Moreover, when it comes to enforcing the CoC, it can cause a lot of problems when it’s managed by people who don’t necessarily know where the line between good-faith and trolling lies. I don’t always know either, but I’ve gotten pretty good at telling the difference. At the end of the day, it’s still not technically possible to identify trolling attempts with 100% accuracy, but the problem appears when even staff misidentify situations. In this specific case, a name was used as a replacement for pronouns. This hasn’t been fully covered by the CoC either - it pushes hard on pronouns, but doesn’t specify what happens in the lack of a pronoun, or where a name is preferred instead. I’m saying “or” because I’m not entirely sure if the lack of a pronoun always implies a name. Anyway, the use of names of course sparked a new debate that more or less attempted to invalidate this practice. There are people who don’t use gender pronouns at all, and that’s their right. This post elaborates on the problems further.

My position

For those of you who don’t know me, I’m trans and heavily active on Stack Exchange. I’ve mainly been active on Stack Overflow, and especially in moderation, but also on other sites. I’m also on the autism spectrum (Asperger), which gave me a hard time getting started in the network.

I joined the network about 4 years ago. At this point, I had barely interacted with people in real social situations (which excludes i.e. family interactions). I joined, asked questions, made mistakes, and I made mistakes in chat. I got suspended at one point because I was pretty much incompetent socially and made several mistakes. After basically trial and error, I finally managed to get somewhere and successfully managed to become a part of a chatroom.

For all intents and purposes, SE is the reason I learned to have social skills. I eventually managed to make friends, and in spite of making mistakes (albeit not nearly as bad as in some of the previous rounds), they helped me evolve. I came out thanks to a different SE user, after having been in doubt for a while. These two things are the reasons why I stayed. The community is amazing, and even that isn’t enough to describe it.

I started getting into moderation because I wanted to help maintain a community like that - a community that helps with things you didn’t expect it to. I ran for moderator because I believed that would let me help more. This was before I knew about how things worked behind the curtains (ref. Aza’s resignation for an instance), and before the entire situation escalated. The situation forced me to reconsider, exclusively because of the way the company handled it. The way they handled the several situations that appeared caused further problems within the community. A lot of the negative consequences surrounding these situations could’ve been handled a lot better if SE was responsive, and if they decided to handle one thing at a time instead of pouring gasoline onto a fire.

I currently have no reason to trust SE. Additionally, they’ve handled so many situations in the exact same way, in spite of an apology saying they realized what their actions did that I can’t continue believing they’re going to improve. I need to see real improvement before I’ll believe there’s an attempt of improving, but I can’t continue contributing to a site that doesn’t seem to care about its users. They pushed hard for corporate with their new home page. The new CoC was intended to protect LGBTQ+ users, but has instead put targets on our backs while excluding others based on different beliefs. It’s possible to accept others and be nice even if there’s disagreement, but it also feels like the CoC doesn’t allow for that in its current state. I’ve elaborated more on the consequences of the way SE released the CoC here.

The main reason I’m leaving is because I have no faith in the company. There’s only a few employees left I trust, and I’ve already said who multiple times elsewhere: Shog and Yaakov. They actually follow up on stuff. Shog also has an amazing ability to calm people down.

I’ve had to say goodbye to a few chatrooms I’m active in. That has hurt quite a lot because they naturally don’t understand why. I’ve been asked a few times to make a room my only place on SE I’d remain active. It hurts to leave the people I talk to daily. More specifically, it hurts to leave people I consider my friends. Staying, even just in chat, still involves contributing to a site that doesn’t value its users. I need to clarify a distinction here: The site is not the same as the community. The site in this case refers to the site without users, as well as the company. The company has made mistake after mistake, and I can’t stick around while they burn the rest to the ground. If I leave now, I can at least leave on my own terms and say goodbye to the people I won’t see again, as well as mention where I can be found rather than being removed by force for some reason.

And yes, this does suck, and I really, really want the situation to be fixed, but I fear it will never happen. SE is an extremely powerful resource. Whenever I search for answers to debugging questions, I almost always end up on SE. SE is generally more efficient to find answers because the answers are separated. And, again, the community there is awesome. Community projects like SmokeDetector and all the bots SOBotics cover are valuable to maintaining the site. The fact that people have taken the time to create and maintain projects like this just shows a strength within the community. In spite of the recent drama, these projects are still running.

I believe the CoC is a step in the right direction, but the entire situation was mishandled so severely it caused other problems. The community turned on itself and was split into supporters and opposers. I joined because I wanted to support an environment where everyone could grow - not just in terms of ability on the topic, but in other ways. That site is now dead and officially unsupported.

Moreover, I no longer feel safe on SE. SE has never been a safespace, but it used to be a place where all kinds of opinions and beliefs could co-exist. Sure, it’s not perfect, but it’s a lot better than other non-safespace sites/places I’ve visited. At the end of the day, different beliefs and opinions are required to develop, and I’ve learned a lot in my time on SE, but if nothing changes to correct the current situation, I’m afraid this is goodbye.


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