This post seems to be communicating something I don’t intend. What I mean it to say is that Stack Overflow has not provided the sorts of activities that promote the sorts of interactions we’d like to see. Perhaps a better explanation of what I’m trying to get at can be found in a more recent post about Disneyland. I’m leaving this post here for posterity, but I certainly don’t want people to feel like I’m blaming them of being overly harsh. In truth, I feel this is an unintended consequence of the system Stack Overflow Inc. designed.
This post is inspired by Makoto’s post on Medium. As I considered the conversation, I realized I needed to sit down and think about why different members of the sites perceive content in very different ways. My mediation got rather far afield from the exact situation at hand, so instead of replying directly, I want to take a hard left turn into a story that I swear will be relevant.
I listen to the Bible regularly and the reading for today1 was 1st Kings—Chapter 12. It’s the part of Israel’s history after King Solomon has died and his son, Rehoboam, was about to be crowned the next king. According to the story, one of Solomon’s officials, Jeroboam, incited the assembly to ask the new king to reduce taxes. Rehoboam consulted the elders, who answered:
If you will be a servant to this people today, and you will minister to them and you will respond to them and speak kind words to them, then they will be your servants for all times.
Then he asked the young men who were his friends, who advised:
So shall you say to this people who have spoken to you saying, ‘Your father has made our yoke heavy, and you make it lighter for us,’ thus shall you speak to them, ‘My little finger is thicker than my father’s loins. And now, where my father did burden you with a heavy yoke, I shall add to your yoke; my father flogged you with whips, but I will flog you with scorpions.’
Needless to say, Rehoboam took the foolish advice of his friends. When he sent his tax collector to enforce his demands, the people stoned him to death. The king had to escape in his chariot back to Jerusalem. Jeroboam lead the ten tribes of Israel into rebellion and became king of the northern kingdom.2 Instead of dealing with the people harshly, speaking kind words would have won them over. But that would not have satisfied the king’s desire to demonstrate his own authority and power.
We tend to think of the reputation system as a meritocracy. When someone participates on the site, community voting demonstrates trust, which opens up privileges to do more on the sites. On the other hand, once people have earned all the privileges, community voting stops mattering and the site functions a lot more like an aristocracy. I put together a little chart that includes a term I made up:3
|Power structure||Authority . . .|
|aristocracy||comes from status.|
|meritocracy||is granted according to ability.|
|meristocracy||comes from status that is granted according to ability.|
In many ways, “meristocracy” takes the best of both systems. It gives agency to people who have demonstrated skill using the site and are invested in the community. That simple idea has allowed Stack Overflow, the site, to scale at roughly the same rate as Stack Overflow, the community. As Jeff Atwood put it:
Stack Overflow is somewhat unique in that we encourage participation of essentially anonymous, random programmers. Our idea is to radically reduce the bar for participation, and take one giant leap of faith:
Trusting our users.
Anyone can suggest an edit or ask a question just by signing up for an account. Over the years, the developers have added many automatic rate limits and quality checks, but we’ve resisted requests to gate participation in other ways. This isn’t purely about growing the company’s business. We believe that Stack Overflow provides more useful content when a wide variety of people ask, answer and vote.
But there’s always been tension with radical trust and the people who abuse it. For many years, I took regular shifts answering support emails. Every day we’d get people asking for their question ban to be lifted. Nearly always I was glad they’d been blocked as their existing questions were unanswerable without heroic effort and showed no sign of improvement over time. I’m sympathetic to the idea that some people just shouldn’t be allowed to use Stack Overflow.
Perhaps we should not be surprised that users who have earned status on the site take on the role of gatekeeper as well. If you haven’t used the site very much, you might not see any problem with questions like: What is the incentive for curl to release the library for free? Experienced users know that most variants of that question will not be answered by the person who made the software and will lead to unhelpful speculation instead. So even though this question got an answer, it’s not worth having the question around to set precedent.
An uncharitable way to look at the response to undeleting the question is that it’s purely a power play. I used my power as a Community Manager to interfere with the authority of a small group of aristocrats on the site and they responded in anger because I was interfering with their authority to do what they like. I don’t know if this is true, but it’s the story I find I’m telling myself.
A more charitable way to look at it is that we ask experienced members of the community to enforce quality standards, we hand them a toolbox with a variety of hammers and then we wag our fingers at them with they use those hammers on questions. Maybe, if we want people to be nicer to new users, we could try something else. Like, I don’t know, mentoring.4 The company likes to think we can solve your problems, but we’re sending mixed messages at the moment.
Paradoxically, the system designed to trust users has lead to quite a bit of mistrust. People who are just starting on their Stack Overflow journey worry “moderators” will slap them down. People who have been active on Stack Overflow tend to be suspicious of those who haven’t internalized the cultural norms. When they say Stack Overflow is “becoming a forum”, they mean it risks losing its essential usefulness because of a flood of trivial nonsense.
So, of course, the two groups have come to a mutually detrimental agreement:
Programmers who could ask good question on Stack Overflow won’t because they don’t want to be abused. (What they don’t know is that most of the “abuse” is really just the way the system is designed to protect the site from unproductive questions.)
Long-time members of Stack Overflow assume (with good reason) that new questions are likely to be unanswerable or duplicate. (What they don’t know is that many of the people who have the ability to ask good questions are reluctant to do so.)
When we talk to people in these groups, we find these attitudes calcifying. And while it’s been our instinct to tell our community to use kinder words, the real problem is we haven’t maximized opportunities for people to be kind to each other.
Without necessarily being designed to do so, our meristocracy system gives status to users who have demonstrated a commitment to quality. Lacking other avenues to show that commitment, the ultimate sign of status is the whole flogging with scorpions thing.
Well, it was when I started writing this post on May 12. ↩
The story goes on to tell us that Jeroboam was no wiser a king than Rehoboam. He fought to keep Israel divided and it never returned to the glory of Solomon’s days. ↩
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