Control and Agency
Last week Stack Overflow had a meetup with the entire company in Austin, Texas. I always love meeting people in person who I normally interact with online. So much is lost when you don't have non-verbal cues.
The internet might offer the tools needed to form a relationship but it can’t replace spending time in person. I’m grateful for the time I got with coworkers (and friends) this week.— Jon Ericson (@jlericson) November 21, 2019
One of the sessions in the meetup was a presentation of some work we are doing to restore the feedback loop between the company and the Stack Overflow community. As valuable as our meta sites have been over the years, they just haven't scaled well. Since I'm leading the "Better Mechanisms for Community Feedback" section, I got a chance to speak about the project. I started off by saying I had a role in creating Meta in the first place. I left this suggestion on UserVoice which was the original way to provide feedback about the site. That suggestion was quoted in the announcement of Meta.
Someone in the crowd (I couldn't see who because of the stage lighting) shouted out "So it's your fault!" I replied that it was and proceeded to profess my love of Meta in a totally unplanned ad libitum. For all its faults, Meta is full of people who care about the site and how it operates. Having talked to owners of other community platforms, it's rare to have that sort of passion. Having too much feedback isn't really a problem most sites have to worry about.
Later in the week, someone mentioned the Meta reaction to our license change. The word this person used was "control". While we did change the overall license this time, we failed to change the license specifically for code a couple of years ago in large part to feedback from folks on our meta sites. Instead of making a necessary change, it seems the company allowed the voices on meta to decide. We also talked about how difficult it can be to make design changes on the sites because of hypercritical feedback. Again, the person I was talking to put this down as an issue of control. Why do we let users complain about the colors and fonts our professional designers have picked out?
It's clear how the narrative of control explains a lot of what we see on Meta:
- The company announces a change to the site.
- People on Meta object strenuously to the change.
- The company either bows to pressure or faces the ongoing griping from people who want to control what we do.
But is this narrative true?
I can't speak for other users and I tend to do poorly when I try, so I'll speak for myself. What motivated me to complain about UserVoice? Was it because I wanted more control over Stack Overflow? It was way back in 2009, so there's a chance I don't remember accurately. But I did leave a few comments:
And in case you are tempted to dismiss the need for meta-discussions, you should note the persistence of closed meta-questions. This doesn't happen because people are bored or wasting time. Rather it is the result of people trying to understand and form rules for their mutual benefit.
Meta-questions are so common because the site really invites asking questions. That's a good thing until a question gets hammered from veteran stackers who are tired of "fluff" questions or think they are cheats. It's frustrating that reputation gets in the way of productive discussions.
By the way, the suggestion takes no particular stance on what or where meta-discussion occurs, just that there be an authorized location.
All these jibe with my memory. I was seeing people ask about the site on the site. Even at that early stage, such questions were not welcome. So my concern was give people a discoverable outlet for their questions about the site. Control wasn't really my concern at all.
Instead I was interested in agency. I saw a problem, felt helpless to do anything about it and asked for a tool (any tool) to help out. In the early stages of Stack Overflow, before it built up a critical mass of helpful volunteers, it really didn't have anything to offer beyond what other communities already provided. But the founders of Stack Overflow invited people to be a part of the development process by blogging and podcasting about major decisions along the way. Even though we didn't have any real control over the way the site was built, we did have agency. We did have input.
It's obvious Meta no longer has the sort of agency it used to. When I proposed a space for meta-discussion, the people who made the decisions were paying attention. With so many conversations going on now (and even more having occurred in the past) on meta sites around the network, it's pretty unlikely that any one argument will sway development. Meta has always been a hack, but now it's barely functioning at all as a feedback mechanism.
My task, therefore, is to find a way for the people making decisions within the company to hear voices from the community that represent a wide variety of interests. That way when we contemplate changes that affect the community, we will have a good idea of how people (even people who never go to Meta) will respond. There's never a promise we'll do what you ask (control), but we're renewing our commitment to take your input into account (agency). If we (the company and the community) improve our feedback loops, there's a chance for everyone to be better off than we are now.
For feedback, see this GitHub issue.