Why is Meta Stack Overflow broken?

Hi there again,

Many people keep asking me the question:

“If you have any issues with the operation of Stack Overflow, why don’t you just go to the meta site to bring them up?”.

Familiar? I frequently get this question from people who agree with me, but to be fair, also from people who do not share my views. It is certainly a valid question to ask, even I asked this a couple of times from myself.

I promised in my previous post that I would share the issues with Meta and why it is not the right place to discuss issues about the main site. This is also the reason why this “Expert Flow” blog was created. Here it goes.

As usual, the disclaimer holds that this is a relatively long blog post without an initial “TL;DR” section, so if you want to read something about this topic, you will need dedication and commitment to reading.

There are so many issues with Meta that I am not even sure where to start. I will rather start with defining what an ideal Meta site would mean for us when we have some difficulty with the main site and wish to discuss that or even when we just wish to share some positive story about things that are working well. An ideal discussion forum should be:

* welcoming
* concise
* fair
* purposeful
* driven by community decisions
* trustworthy

So far so good, most of you would probably even agree with most of this list. Now, let us examine a bit how Meta Stack Overflow is achieving at these.

Welcoming

It is not unusual that people do not really have good faith on the meta site. When you feel a site welcoming, you like going there. You know that people will welcome you with good faith, so even if you are wrong, they will not start finding small pot-holes in your question that they can jump on and attack all of a sudden.

I talked to several people on Meta, and most of them report that they do not visit the site anymore because of the unwelcoming behavior and atmosphere. There are cases where newcomers wanted to ask valid questions with humility, and were downvoted to oblivion without proper criticism given to the person to learn. This is not nice, especially when the newcomer went there to actually learn and be educated about the site.

It should be appreciated rather than jumped upon. I wish some hard-minded people from Stack Overflow had this attitude, at least.

Concise

Unfortunately, the site is full of very noisy threads where people keep arguing about insignificant details, whether it is spelled “organize” or “organise”. I am just exaggerating with this example, but obviously, there are cases which are completely irrelevant to the point in question, and as such: unfortunately, it raises the well-known noise vs. signal ratio.

Okay, okay, let us forget about that for a second, what about the many declined flags that people keep bringing up? Well, the moderators and community managers apparently prefer declining noisy comment flags because they think it is good and acceptable on Meta since it is “different than the main site”.

They do not see any problem with that. This makes certain otherwise important questions and answers relatively difficult to follow. This is sad.

Fair

There are many examples here to be given, sadly. Let us start with the usual unexplained downvotes argument? Hey, you could ask: why are there even downvotes at all on a “welcoming site”?

But even if there are, why allow unexplained revenge-games?

Let us pretend that for a second, this is all my imagination that puts it there, there is still one issue that I must mention about fairness in here, namely:

Why can people start voting for a proposal upfront without discussion period?

I mean, if there is no discussion period and anyone can start voting on gut feelings and first impression which will likely not be changed later, especially without post edits, so what is the point? I mean really? Is it fair not to give a chance for the late replies?

Oh, but I hear you, if the late post is solid, it will get the precedence over. In an ideal world, sure, but have you ever heard about mass voting, when people headlessly vote based on the current score balance? And even if that was not the case, how often do you go back to change your votes, surely not oftentimes?

It is not unusual that opposite opinions to moderators and community managers are removed all of a sudden. I did see it happening to people, unfortunately more often than I wished. It is not nice.

There was even an occasion where a 450+ K contributor got his post removed, then three 20K+ contributors decided to bring it back, and right after that, a moderator did not like it, and removed it again, and then of course, the 20K+ contributors could not undelete it again. That is how these things tend to go, sadly.

Oh, have I mentioned to you that a 100+ K reputation user has quit the site not much after he nominated himself for a moderator position? You could say that it is unfortunate, but it is more than that: some people go around for meta and such posts and downvote completely valid answers and questions from the OP in question. Usually, the highest and lowest scoring posts are the targets of these, or somewhere among those lines. This is just unacceptably childish, and if this is
not revenge, what is it?

At some point, some people will lose the motivation after the downvoting finger exercise, unjustified comment removals, and all that. One may decide to disassociate the name from meta in 3-5 posts or so. It is a practical example that a person got one-month long ban without prior example, warning, and what-so-ever. Not only that, the person even got affected by it on the main site, not only on meta!

Now, this is I think the point where we cannot speak about fairness anymore.

Purposeful

Yes, I mean purposeful in the way that it is meant for questions and answers, proposals, et al. What it is not meant for is submitting a question which does not seek any discussion, in our opinion. Yes, I hear you, I hear you, there is a close reason for such questions, yet community managers and some moderators tend to just submit “rules” there.

Yep, questions that do not seek any discussion at all; they do not go to the help center or other official sub-sites after some discussion and voting period, as read-only content until the next change, nope.

They keep spreading these on the already convoluted and noisy meta site so that if you are lucky, you may find an important rule in the bunch there, but you really need to be lucky.

I do not even mention that these posts on meta are inherently read-write, so anyone can chime in and modify the official rule. While, it is possible to revert or even lock later, it is still additional manual work.

Community decisions

You would think that the community decides on such a meta site, yeah? This is unfortunately not the case. There have been threads where the community has had vastly different opinions compared to the moderators. One typical case was the debate about flagging link-only old answers, but upvoted answers.

The community got an answer outstanding of the rest which said that moderators do accept flags for link-only, but upvoted answers. Do you guys think anything has changed ever since? Not really. Those poor posts still live among us!

Trustworthy

If there is no welcoming atmosphere, there is no fairness to it, there are no community decisions, and I could keep enumerating these… Can we really say this site is trustworthy into which you happily put your leisure time hours and you get fun in turn? I personally do not think so. Being welcoming, fair and heard (and for real, not just in theory) are essential for me. If I do not find these basic human values somewhere, it will stop being fun at some point, and will stop contributing to it at large.

Summary

That is it for today. As you can see, there are several issues with the site and by now, the moderators and even the community managers began to realize it – just read their recent proposals. In the beginning, however, we were always called names for telling them the same thing that they start realizing themselves. They need to understand when we bring these issues up, it is not because we wish to cause more pain for them, but to make the site more useful for its original mission and more sustainable in the far future.

That being said, I am happy to see some progress from them, even if probably no apologies may be given, e.g. in case of the ban, et al. Hopefully, we will see some progress and things will become better in the future.

As usual, stay tuned, I will come back with another topic next week to think through in more detail. Thank you for your attention and have a lovely week!

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