Richard commented on an answer I left on Meta Stack Exchange:

I think the problem was that a) The decision to demod Monica came from high up the chain of command and everyone below was scared of apologising on their behalf and b) The general feeling seems to be that they shouldn't need to really apologise to a bigot. Everything that came afterwards reflects that thinking, right up to the point that they were eventually forced to recant by legal means. There's no good evidence that any of the underlying thinking has changed. They're sorry it caused a fuss, not sorry they did it.

Because of the nature of Stack Overflow's agreement with Monica Cellio, there is realistically no chance the company will respond to this speculation. I wrote obliquely about a retrospective in a Twitter thread about accountability. After thinking about this for over a month, I believe it important to tell my version of the story in more detail. Obviously there is a temptation to promote myself and provide salacious content. But I also think many Stack Overflow and Stack Exchange contributors have been harmed. The company that manages those communities and the content they create needs to be held accountable to the public for the same reason we regulate utilities. Their incentives must be aligned with beneficiaries of the service.

A few disclaimers:

  • I'm not using any notes, but only my memory of events from months and even years in the past. My memory is both fallible and prone to bias.

  • I'm sympathetic to the view that authors be allowed to use the language they feel comfortable using. I would urge authors to use pronouns other people request as a matter of courtesy. I have adopted the use of singular "they/them" in my own writing, but I don't think that should be required of others.

  • While I have talked with people who are transitioning away from the gender they were born into, I don't have any real understanding of their life experience. I take them at their word when they explain what they are going through. I believe them when they explain the harm that is done by people misusing pronouns.

  • Most of the events I describe are second or third hand. I wasn't very much involved in this situation until near the end.

So I'm not exactly the best source for this except I'm free to speak about what I observed.

The story starts several years ago in the Teachers' Lounge chatroom where Stack Exchange and Stack Overflow moderators can talk with each other. There is some business that occurs in the TL, but much of the conversation is whatever is on the minds of the moderators who happen to be there. The chat platform is a product the company developed based on Campfire chat. It is easily my favorite chat system, but it runs into moderation problems when the number of active users exceeds a few dozen.1

Moderators on Stack Exchange sites tend to be particularly adept at navigating social dynamics, but as the network grew, so did the potential TL membership. I don't have access to the data, but from the time I joined in 2012 the activity in the TL increased substantially. Meanwhile, the community team shrank. Since CMs are de facto moderators of the moderators, that meant the potential for toxic behavior increased. For a variety of reasons, fewer of the CMs (including myself) remained active in the chatroom.

A few years ago a small number of moderators started telling the community team that they were feeling uncomfortable in the TL. I'm afraid I was not sympathetic at all. I hadn't yet realized the potential danger and I considered the TL to be entirely optional for moderators. If someone was having a problem in moderator chat, it was probably their own issue and they can just stay away. Fortunately other CMs took the moderators more seriously.

One of the issues that came up was that some moderators requested specific pronouns that other moderators didn't use. Part of the problem is there was no easy way for people to provide preferred pronouns besides telling each other in conversation. So it was easy to use the wrong pronoun unintentionally. There was also inherent disagreement between people requesting "they/them" and others who did not want to use them. And there was at least one incident where a moderator made a very hurtful comment about transgender people.

To be clear, this was not the only problem brewing. None of the moderation tools of chat worked for a moderator-only room and discussions did get heated from time to time. If it weren't pronouns, I'm confident some other disagreement would have boiled over eventually. For the last few years, chat has been utterly abandoned by Stack Overflow leadership since the company moved to Slack for internal communications.2 So there was no will to improve moderation tools on chat.

Other CMs specifically raised the issue of pronouns with leadership. It seemed like something we'd need to address in the Code of Conduct. Nothing really happened at that point, if I recall. Sometime after that, a moderator posted a question in the moderator-only Q&A about using preferred pronouns. I answered that question as did other CMs.3 My answer tried to thread the needle between various conflicting positions, as is my wont. Much later in the process, I deleted the answer since it conflicted with the company's eventual decision. I was fine with that; one of my preferred conflict resolution strategies is compromise.

The employees most active in the TL (mostly CMs or former CMs) continued to mediate between moderators. But the conflict continued to surface. Around the time the community team changed leadership, CMs asked again for guidance. Months later we learned that some people in leadership put this request on their agenda, but failed to follow through. Over the summer I went on sabbatical so I don't have any first-hand knowledge of that time. I later learned that moderators were (understandably) frustrated by our lack of progress clarifying the CoC.

Months passed with no movement. My understanding at the time was the company held a philosophy of servant leadership. We used to joke that people had been "demoted to manager". Leaders were expected to listen to their people and give them agency. There was a concept of "decisions as a service" in which a leader might resolve a disagreement by making a decision in order to allow progress. Implicit in this concept was the understanding that leaders might make the wrong decision and be required to change their minds. And so I felt a degree of relief when someone in leadership stepped in to make a decision.

While I thought the initial statement in the TL was more aggressive than I would have preferred, it did seem like a reasonable decision. Unfortunately, it was somewhat ambiguous.4 It turns out the intention was even more forceful than my reading. Unfortunately, the person who made the statement logged off of chat (both the TL and the internal chat systems) for the weekend and did not respond to repeated requests (both from moderators and CMs) to clarify. This created so much confusion that the conflict among moderators greatly increased.

At this point it became clear the normal tools for chat moderation were useless when moderators needed moderating. In the end, CMs simply shut down the room and created a script to automatically prevent moderators from speaking there so that the CMs could get some rest. The weekend after that was a near carbon copy except that Monica Cellio had been forcibly removed from her moderator positions. Again, the people who made this decision on a Friday afternoon abandoned the CMs to deal with the fallout sans direction.5

It should be clear this is not the model of servant leadership. I pleaded with many people up and down the chain of command who ought to have had authority to step in. None were willing and able to do so. Both moderators and CMs were kept in the dark. While we were scrabbling for information and guidance, our leaders were talking to The Register. Moderators began resigning in protest and the CMs had no answers. We didn't know what was going on or how leadership intended to answer.

He replied, "I heard the sound of You in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked, so I hid."—Genesis 3:10 (JPS)

This has not been a blameless retrospective. I blame a failure of leadership within the company for the problems it has had with the community. I mentioned Conway's Law in my going-away post. The idea is that the product of an organization reflects its internal communication structure. Creating that structure is the job of an organization's leadership. In many ways, it's the only job leaders have.

For the first time in my career, I find myself leading a small team. I've carved out some community management work for myself in much the same way programmers try to keep coding as they move into management positions. But the rest of my job is meetings and Jira tickets and emails and pulling information out of DMs into channels in Slack. In other words, I'm working to open up communication paths between the people doing the work.

Stack Overflow leaders worked to close down communication paths in 2019. I sent so many emails to leaders that (as far as I can tell) were piped into /dev/null. Community Managers were forbidden to discuss things in public for legal reasons. We were instructed not to use our primary medium of communication with the community. I can't know for certain, but I believe the primary motivation was shame. I see evidence that Stack Overflow leadership is ashamed of the way their peers see the community. They would like to distance themselves from contributors to the site who are perceived, in certain circles, as sexist, racist, homophobic or transphobic.

It seems so easy to just tell those people to go away. The company can simply remove access, if they desire. If only it were that straightforward. What leadership failed to consider is that Monica Cellio is not transphobic.6 This would not have been difficult to figure out if leadership had simply picked up the phone to talk to her. I did that in the week leading up to her firing. I may disagree with her grammar standards, but she is no bigot.

With the lens of shame, the actions of leadership start to make more sense. Why the burst of activity after months of inaction? Perhaps it was the fear the incoming CEO would hold leaders accountable? Perhaps they had forgotten people were waiting for them? Perhaps they believed their orders had been ignored by the CMs? Whatever the case, people who are ashamed of their actions (and inactions) naturally want to hide their shame.

As the title says, this is a one-sided retrospective. There have been changes to leadership since I left. It's possible the culture is changing for the better. I see from the product updates that parts of the company are trying to do the right thing. I'm glad; sincerely I'm grateful for the good faith attempts I see to repair the damage. For what it's worth, I mostly agree with Meg:

The internal politics around meta are (or were) to be feared more than meta itself IMO. Like Sara says in her post "it’s a discussion that has continued nearly daily over the past six months." I personally found it very exhausting and I am generally on the "pro meta" side. I'm optimistic that this along with other encouraging action lately is truly borne out of an underlying positive shift... I'm sure this was uhh not an easy blog post to write, though. Hopefully the next update is a fun data science or research post. :)

But this is my retrospective and I can't get over feelings of disappointment, anger, frustration, cynicism and, yes, shame. The company I wanted Stack Overflow to be (and thought it was) would not take a year to listen to what the people most active with the community were saying.7 Here's hoping for a better 2020.8


  1. I strongly suspect the there is an analog to Dunbar's number at play. After a certain point, it becomes impossible to keep track of all the interconnecting relationships in a group.

  2. Among the many missed business opportunities must be counted the failure to turn chat into a paid product. For years leadership said chat could never be profitable. Once Slack proved them wrong, they said we could never compete because we were so far behind. I can't prove them wrong, but I think Discord did. Exactly why the company failed to see the potential of chat is a story for another day.

  3. I do have access to that site and the answers, but following the conceit of this post, I'm going from memory for this bit of the story too.

  4. In a straw poll taken during the retrospective, roughly half the participants read the statement differently than I did. The other half agreed with my interpretation. Given we were employees with greater access to the decision process, there is little reason to expect the moderators to have understood the statement's intent.

  5. I also avoided chat for those two weekends. I don't know if it would have made any difference, but it was largely acting out of cowardice. I felt I should speak up, but I was afraid.

  6. For instance, she donated almost $8k to The Trevor Project that was left over from her GoFundMe campaign. Meanwhile, the Gives Back program was delayed last year because Robert Cartaino, the owner of that project, was fired. (I'm done with the "let go" doublespeak.) Even before he left, there was push back from leadership for what was billed as financial reasons. Given the tax benefits companies reap from charitable giving, I wonder if the real problem was the program's connection to moderators. But perhaps that's uncharitable of me.

  7. It's not clear to me that leadership is listening to the Community Managers even today.

  8. Here's my new worry: 2020 is shaping up to being a really bad environment for Stack Overflow's business. At College Confidential, we saw a notable decrease in traffic and advertiser interest in March. Even in the tech sector, I imagine hiring is going to be slow for a while. And as useful as private Q&A can be, I suspect companies are going to invest in video conferencing and chat first. Historically the community has taken the back seat when times of financial stress arrive.