(Originally published on meta.stackoverflow Stack Exchange by Jon Ericson.)

This is a hopeful sign for me. I've written elsewhere about my experiences as a CM and, while this came too late for me, it should be encouraging to people who are still working at the company. I won't go into detail about the specific responses to these questions except to say that they are not surprising to me. (Well, that there are 6 core values rather than 5 is a bit surprising.) They more or less match what I heard internally.

Since I first met him, Prashanth Chandrasekar impressed me as an excellent listener. He's made point of listening to members of the community, including interviewing someone during our Austin meetup in front of the entire company. Overall, this is a step in the right direction. Nothing can be improved until Stack Overflow leadership truly understands the difficulties the community is facing.

I sometimes worry that "Community" is an ambiguous word. Common definitions involve people who come together for a common purpose or have some relationship with each other. But it can also be applied to people who are gathered in one place without any particular regard for each other. I recently read an article called "What Is Community Anyway?" (by David Chavis & Kien Lee) that helpfully explains:

Just like Russian Matryoshka dolls, communities often sit within other communities. For example, in a neighborhood—a community in and of itself—there may be ethnic or racial communities, communities based on people of different ages and with different needs, and communities based on common economic interests.

When a funder or evaluator looks at a neighborhood, they often struggle with its boundaries, as if streets can bind social relationships. Often they see a neighborhood as the community, when, in fact, many communities are likely to exist within it, and each likely extends well beyond the physical boundaries of the neighborhood.

Without defining "community", statements like "Community engagement and inclusion is an important priority." are ambiguous. We tend to read into them what we want to hear. It's important to understand that Stack Overflow leadership defines community quite broadly to include people who don't participate in Meta, don't participate on the main site and, in many cases, don't see any value in doing those things. I occasionally heard "community" to include customers who don't engage with the public sites.

That's not a bad thing, mind you. Narrow definitions of community can be quite harmful as they exclude people who should be involved. But the broad definition can gloss over real concerns of subcommunities. For instance, I've seen a willingness to give up certain types of community engagement and inclusion if it appears they might interfere with other, more desirable, types of engagement. Again, this can be the right choice. I'd be interested in more clarity around the company's specific plans with subcommunities.

One of the issues I've seen over the years working for Stack Overflow is that the company underinvested in onboarding new users. Many initiatives, including a promising mentoring program were given less support by leadership than I believe they warranted. Unfortunately, the failure to guide new users has resulted in far more antagonism between new users and the existing community than is strictly necessary. Initiatives attempting to address the problem tend to be shallow and lack follow-through. For instance, the new contributor indicator has not been updated since it was introduced. As far as I know, it has been entirely ineffectual in its current state.

For a long time, I warned internally that the company was incurring competitive risk by not addressing problems such as the drop in answer rate. Even when there were more community managers, I pointed out that important community work was left undone despite our best efforts. Listening to volunteers who contribute content is the right direction in which to move. What I'll be looking for next is meaningful investment in the community.

Please direct comments to the original post.