To Kill a Community

I wasn’t a reader growing up. By reading, I mean the books assigned in English Literature. It’s fair to say I was more an avid reader of Cliff Notes. If the book was turned into a movie, that was even better. Then I watched a movie that turned me onto books:

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”

The quote is from one of my favorite books, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, a book I cherish for its humanity and exploration into injustice. The fundamental truth of the novel is we really do not understand others in the way we think we do.

How many times have we walked away from an argument or conflict and wished it had gone differently? Often our regret stems from a realization that we misread the situation and did not consider the other person’s perspective. We did not climb inside their skin.

A few months back, a controversy erupted on Stack Overflow. You may not have heard of any of this as the discussion happened on Meta, a site about Stack Overflow.

There have been plenty of flares up on Meta over the years. The majority of visitors to Meta are power users of Stack Overflow and the Stack Exchange sites. They tend to be vocal in their opinions and sensitive to any perceived slights to the community. The handful of Community Managers employed by Stack Overflow generally do a good job maintaining some semblance of order to the discussions.

However this time was different. A few months back, one of moderators was fired. While moderators are not employees of Stack Overflow, they can be dismissed from moderator privileges if they violate the company’s policies. In this case, her firing came about from a discussion on changes to the Code of Conduct.

The reaction from users was swift. Many moderators resigned or suspended activity in protest over the ham-fisted firing and non-response from Stack Overflow. Power users were indignant at the lack of due process. They felt the company was no longer interested in listening to the community.

Little progress has been made in addressing the concerns of the community. There was an apology issued by a senior executive of Stack Overflow (though notably not from Joel Spolsky or the recently hired CEO). The company did come to an agreement with the moderator they fired. So despite minimal engagement, things seemed to simmer down.

Then controversy erupted again. Stack Overflow fired two Community Managers. Josh Heyer (AKA shog9) and Robert Cartaino were considered the heart, soul, and voice of the community, keeping the site hospitable for over a decade in the face of massive growth in usage, whims of management, and changes in corporate strategy.

It is no mystery that the past three years for Stack Overflow have been tumultuous. There has been an overt push to shift their revenue model to software sales. Despite the shift, the community always mattered as much as revenue and that stance was unassailable.

“Stack Exchange is symbiosis between company and community. One cannot exist with the other. Either there is cooperation or there is no cooperation. But if there is no cooperation Stack Exchange (as we know it) is dead.”

In the early days, Stack Overflow was a community in every respect. There was a shared purpose which attracted like-minded people, in this case professional developers. The site was about building the library of programming content, so the standards for contributing were fairly strict in order to ensure only canonical content was added.

Then by 2014, traffic started to change. The community became less about the experts exchanging content with experts. Less experienced users came to rely on the site for help, often with little effort on their part or posting of poorly constructed questions. The site was serving two masters, and not doing a good job serving either.

“Objectively and critically, I can say that the experience for experienced users AND new users are both suboptimal. However, the experience for new users is disproportionately suboptimal.”

I would not say Stack Overflow is in decline towards obsolescence. However the number of truly active users has declined steadily since 2017. While active users hover in the low thousands, the site now sees an average of 50 million visitors every month because that is where Google sends them.

It no longer makes sense to call Stack Overflow a community. When it was a smaller group of experts with a shared purpose, that description was apt. A better description would be a very large and valuable library of programming content. With the resignations and dismissals though, the task of maintaining this library becomes much more difficult.

There are several lessons we can learn from the Stack Overflow journey and many other communities I have observed. I have boiled these down to ten aspects every community needs as the foundation for how to launch, scale, and manage itself:

  1. Purpose — why is a community necessary and what value does it bring
  2. Vision — the community needs a future direction to drive momentum
  3. Values — what does the community stand for both within the group and outside
  4. Rules — a code of conduct that clearly states norms and acceptable behaviors
  5. Trust — especially with power users and moderators doing most of the work
  6. Authority — decision making needs to be entrusted to moderators
  7. Transparency — open, authentic, thoughtful communications that build trust
  8. Accountability — creating a sense of ownership in community members
  9. Introspection — reflect on the purpose, vision & values and adjust if needed
  10. Empathy — having patience and taking time to walk in another’s skin

The health of a community is measured by the value and trust placed in moderators. I have referred to moderators as exception handlers in the past, but they are so much more. How they engage with users and the community at large is critical.

What kills community the fastest though is the absence of empathy. What led many moderators to resign was the inability for leadership at Stack Overflow to understand and address the many challenges faced in maintaining such a massive site. Empathy makes or breaks a community.

With all that is entailed in building a community, you may ask why bother? Those of us that have led communities have seen the immense value created when you bring people together. Community is the fuel that drives the open source movement, sites like Stack Overflow and GitHub, and the many programs like Women Who Code and She Loves Data that are helping many others to navigate and grow their careers in tech.

If a team can multiply the potential of any single individual, community unlocks exponential potential.

What are some successful communities, either online or in person, that you have been an active member of? Why do you feel those communities succeed?

Tips for growing & nurturing developer communities | Katie Penn, Twitch

Really interesting talk on the importance of authenticity, as an aside I actually participated at the Salesforce $1 Million Hackathon mentioned in her talk. My mobile app did not win.

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