Stack Exchange and License issues

This is the first post in the series that will come the next 1-2 months. I will try to reveal a fundamental issue – in our opinion of course, with which you may disagree-, with this site every upcoming week.

Before you claim that we are just ranting without any basis, please try to understand that, for instance I have been a Trusted User (20K+) for a while now, which is the highest technical privilege on this site, answered a bit fewer than 1000 questions, got gold badges, et al. Some others have achieved even more than me on this site. While I do not consider any significance of the badges, reputation and all that when helping people, some people seem to think that this matters so much, so I just wish to point out that we are not newbies who asked several poor questions and then rant about the feedback gotten.

I would like to apologize in advance if the content of this blog post may sound harsh to some. I am trying to summarize the situation that happened to someone lately ending up in one-month-long ban due to “violating the rules”.

In medias res, let us go back a bit in the history… The new “Stack Overflow Meta” site was formed some several months ago this year introducing a new concept: “free voting”, and carrying on an old concept: “meta effect”.

I will explain these in details in a later blog post of this Stack Exchange series, but in short: I feel that this encourages certain behavior pattern that may be harmful when you would like to discuss issues sincerely and honestly. Yes, I hear you; it may sound ranting, especially if you are an SE fan boy, but please give me the chance to explain it!

It happened to user Joe 2-3 months ago that he decided to request his first disassociation from a post as per the Create License. This ought to not only be possible, but Stack Exchange has to keep it in respect. This sounds all cool and fair, doesn’t it? Yes, sure, in theory, but keep reading!

Long story short: some of his requested posts are still not disassociated and he even got a ban for the disassociation requests after all. Do not give up reading at this point just before the details!

Initially, he contacted the community management team who advised to flag the posts and wrote that it would be handled by moderators. This sounded really cool and easy-going, so our user “Joe” gratefully followed the advice that he was given.

His first 1-2 requests had got declined by some moderators after which he decided to write to the community team again whether he would be doing something wrong. They replied to him (a bit late though) that they would go through the declined flags and do the disassociation themselves. He got assured basically which made him happy from the level of frustration. Finally, He saw the possibility of proceeding! But what came after?

He was waiting literally a couple of weeks with continuous assurance for the follow-up emails from the community management team that they would do it, just need some time. Even we have our limits, so after a while, user Joe felt himself and the situation so desperate without any option left that he decided to write to the Community Growth VP at Stack Exchange to get further help to resolve this license infringement issue peacefully and carefully.

Jay looked very helpful at first, but unfortunately he never got around to fixing this issue even though user Joe requested the disassociation for the posts with the declined flags from him. Joe has literally waited for him, too, at least 7-8 days, unfortunately.

OK, it is all “fine”, Joe decided to not pursue on towards the legal route to have a more peaceful life for himself. That was “alright” until a couple of weeks ago…

There was a question about some UDP management on Stack Overflow, which looked close to Joe’s heart since it involved a change in upstream that he did last year. He answered this question along with another contributor. He revealed an issue in Joe’s answer which he fixed after a bit of thinking; all good I hear you?

Joe flagged the two obsolete comments from other contributorfor removal since the issue was addressed and we reached the agreement in there. OK, all good, right? See, those flags were declined without explanation. Joe got to know that they cannot write reasons for comment flags. He was advised to bring it up on meta, which he honestly, sincerely and all fairness tried to follow.

This was the point where the story turned really bad and the avalanche began to fall…

First, the answer under which the two comments were discussed started getting unexplained downvotes. They call it “meta effect”, as well as the meta post started to get downvotes after the disagreements in comments – whether mods should skip or decline flags if they do not have time – even the post started off with upvotes only and the content has not changed.

OK, good, what is the problem, you could ask? User Joe felt this “meta effect” a bit unfair, so he decided to take himself out of the “credit” for his post and requested the disassociation from the post itself since he could not get the post deletion done. The reason for that is that he already got an answer, although deletion would have been good, too, I believe.

That is alright, you would say? In literally a couple of minutes, he got a moderator email after losing the 22K+ reputation temporarily that he would be banned for one month because – not word-by-word of course, but this is the point – “they have better things to do than disassociating posts when people think they are done”. Our Joe tried his best not to misinterpret anything. This is the sentence he got as the reason of violating the rules.

He requested 5-10 disassociations in the past, out of which about 2-3 got approved after some time. The last one was 1-2 weeks before the incident. Anyway, this was the reason why our Joe became a person who “violates the rules”. Yes, he violated some rules which cannot even be found in the help center under the rules or even on Meta. Poor Joe has just requested the
disassociation as per the Creative License, and that was which got him to the point of applying violence on some undocumented rules.

Nice story, you would say, but this is not the end of the story!

Our Joe wrote to Jay (Community Growth VP) again – remember he discussed the topic with him earlier without success – to have a look at this issue, and let him know why acting based on the license would be an action to ban.

Alright, this did not go far either, again. They could not reach an agreement with Jay that solving license issues is very important and that one-month long banning for a simple flag in 1-2 weeks is strange. Our Joe remained the person to blame all the time because he requested the disassociation, the 5-10th in his life without precedence the last 1-2 weeks.

I personally take it as a clear sign that they think solving these license “issues” is not as important as going for the brute force action of banning someone with the reason of “violating the rules”.

You can form your opinion about this story, but please keep in mind that Stack Exchange has to comply with the license. It is not optional. Whether the ban is justified in this case, that is another arguable point.

They could certainly make it possible for users to disassociate themselves from the post without moderator involvement, but no, they ban users for one-month, and potentially one-year next time instead of implementing this minor feature.

Whether or not having such an issue only on Meta should get someone banned also on the main Stack Overflow site is questionable… I will leave it with the readers to decide.

Stay tunned, I will come back with another issue next week.


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