This was originally a response to How is the community doing?, but has been moved to its own question on request.
The community’s situation is improving, but acknowledgements & commitments need to be made so we can heal the wounds in our community.
I think it's safe to say that we all share the same goal of improving the site and moving forward rather than dwelling on the past. But that doesn't (can't) mean ignoring the past. In particular we need to resolve the difficulty and poor health of our meta context, a situation which is the direct result of past actions. Those past actions are still prominent in the text of our site as well as in the collective memory of the community. We need to face the cause of our meta problems by addressing them with decisions that are mindful of the past.
Consider: we have an answer about meta process issues voted to the top of our community check-in feedback request; many of our election questionnaire submissions are about fair or unfair treatment and trust; surprisingly an unfounded complaint with an astronomical number of downvotes is nevertheless garnering several upvotes. Members of the community feel a vibe of something being not quite right between ordinary users and the diamond moderator team, and neither group are sure how exactly to relate to each other anymore.
I’m going to talk about what’s going on and what we can do from here. I believe nobody is incorrigible, and I’m not out for revenge or recompense. I honestly believe everyone wants to work together to get through this and improve our community’s atmosphere of collaboration.
I'm going to start the meat of this post with my thoughts on the roles of moderators and the community in a Stack Exchange community.
Moderators should see themselves and be seen by others as just ordinary community members; they are not administrators nor the bosses. The community should set policy as a whole, and the mods should work to enforce it. Some of these moderators get entrusted with a diamond to perform some sensitive tasks only a few can do: mostly handle flags and trouble. According to the diamond moderator help page most of their work “is mundane”, and they do “as little as possible”. They will sometimes have to “deal with controversial issues on which not everyone agrees”, but they should mostly just have to deal with it like the rest of the community (this quote's context is in a paragraph asking other community members to be compassionate toward them while they do so). They are, after all, just ordinary community members and moderators. Those diamond moderators should “lead by example” and “show respect for their fellow community members in their actions and words.”
The rest of the moderation community (all site members) should feel comfortable relating to their elected diamond moderator representatives as roughly equals. The community’s newer and less experienced members may look to the older and more experienced members from time to time for guidance, including but not exclusively the diamond moderators. Those experienced members (diamond moderators included) should share their wisdom and set a good example. The community members should work to empower the diamond moderators to handle the tasks they were elected with privileges to perform. Community members should take the diamond moderators’ input on board as they would with other members. Community members (diamond or not) should all be answerable to each other without exception.
Our Current Situation
I stated everything in the previous section because right now our community doesn't look like that at all. There's a crisis of identity between established members and the diamond moderator team which is still visibly affecting us. I feel that it comes down to two generally identified factors. There's no way to sugarcoat this so I'm going to speak plainly.
- Mxyzplk's general behaviour was unacceptably poor until recently: ad hominem, reframing of members’ positions as foolish straw man versions, and generally multitudinous violations of Be Nice. Any ordinary citizen (let alone a diamond moderator who must lead by example) should be brought in line or suspended for doing these things for this long, but Mxyzplk has publicly asserted they’ve never committed any wrongdoing.
In the past six months Mxyzplk turned around his behaviour. However Mxyzplk’s past misbehaviour is still prominently displayed by the site with Mxyzplk yet to take responsibility for it and edit it out.
- Many established members feel the power dynamic is not as it should be. Their meta voice has been lost or diminished. They feel the site is now run by and answerable to the diamond moderators. They don't see the diamond moderators working alongside others to direct the community’s course, and feel that somehow the diamond moderators have become exceptions to the rule of everyone being answerable to each other.
You might not find these factors totally encapsulate what you feel and think and have seen. It’s my attempts to summarise my thoughts after more than a year of processing all of this stuff, and I’m trying to encapsulate dozens of meta posts and hundreds of comments and chat posts. This is difficult subtext to distill and I’m just one person.
The first of those issues needs no more words said right now. The second requires some explaining of how we got there. Basically, we got there via the events following game-rec ban. I want to be clear: that they were banned, and remain banned, is not the problem and never was. The problems emerged in the events that followed. I’m not sure the diamond moderators fully understand and appreciate what damage was done.
I wouldn’t go through these events if I didn’t need to. However I think it’s necessary to do so here. I need to establish the context of where issues originated or escalated, and what effect those events had that is still relevant to our current situation.
Following a feedback thread on game-recs (which had no indication of being binding), the diamond moderators made a ruling to ban game-recs and other (unmentioned) subjects. It was within the diamond moderators’ purview, given the site’s history with game-rec and their poll of the community’s thoughts, to make this ruling. However the diamond moderators never took responsibility for independently making this ruling: their line was, and remained, that they merely did what voters told them to do. (See also Oct ‘15 or Feb ‘16.)
When a community member pointed out the lack of confirmation was an issue and due process was not followed, and garnered significant agreement and support from the community, that member was personally attacked by a diamond moderator, and their complaints were dismissed simply by virtue of who they were with no regard to the content of their complaint or the community's general support for the complaint. The aforementioned “we just did what you told us to do” line emerged here.
When community members protested that subjects never even mentioned in the Game Recommendations feedback had been banned, the diamond moderators said this is how it is now because the mods say so, too bad:
[...] the mod interpretation of current state is as I've stated it above. Therefore it is fact, as we're the ones that have to enforce it, and we see no clear reason we should be interpreting past discussion in a different way.
The diamond moderator team apparently believed their actions to be completely right (see also this following message) even after all these protests, and consciously dismissed all negative response. When a community member attempted to have us discuss what was going wrong so we could improve things, the diamond moderators publicly disengaged and Mxyzplk expressed that they felt the effort was just “the usual suspects muckracking”. (To the diamond moderator team’s credit, they did engage in a subsequent “let’s talk please” question and listen to and engage with the community regarding peoples’ concerns.)
At some point the diamond moderators understood that many voters had a different understanding of game recommendation policy to them. However when confronted by the fact many community members did not know as much about the policy history as they did, they had to this point consistently responded with belligerence and blame, instead of trying to understand where those users were coming from or helping those people understand the historical context and policies. These policies were after all discussed and established in 2011, which was before most of our active meta community was even on the site.
Where That Leaves Us
Mxyzplk and SevenSidedDie, you never intended to do any harm, but you’ve succumbed to a bugbear that’s poisoned the Mod Voice. Since or perhaps even prior to the game-rec ban, your conversation with the rest of the community has been infused with a sense of superiority, and you pervasively dismiss the input of others as uninformed, emotional, trivial, confused, etc. Objections get dismissed on the basis they’re just claims of mod abuse (even when they aren’t, and such claims should not be lightly dismissed anyway); or simply because they’re “the same five people” who “will always be upset” — which as TuggyNE pointed out in point 3 of this post here can always just be used to dismiss any arbitrary individual, and was in fact used to disengage with a good-faith discussion above: see the “muckracking” comment. Several users expect to be dismissed outright by the diamond moderators irrespective of the content of their words simply because of who they are, and anybody can become one of these users at any time. This poisons the meta well and disempowers the community. You have also exhibited a tendency to shift responsibility for your own actions onto the community: the community is responsible for the diamond moderators’ decision to ban game-recs, not the diamond moderators themselves; the community is responsible for not having fully understood the ancient game-rec contexts of 2011, the diamond moderators aren’t responsible for clarifying things to them; the community is responsible for fixing up Mxyzplk’s indiscretions, not Mxyzplk. You need to recognise this bugbear for what it is and extricate it from your behaviour.
I’ve seen signs you both might already be recognising the bugbear and making efforts to eliminate it. However, simply stopping bugbear behaviour isn’t enough to change the meta atmosphere and help the community heal. You’ve engaged in this behaviour for a long period of time. The community needs to see that you recognise it was a problem and that you intend to not repeat it. The community hasn’t seen that, so instead we see a tacit signal that you believe such behaviour was totally OK, and that we should expect to see the bugbear again in comparable circumstances.
That leaves the community working in an uncomfortable context: we try to avoid circumstances that would see the bugbear re-emerge, which limits what we’re capable of doing since we expect to see the bugbear in such circumstances as “comment on problematic behaviour” or “discuss policy”. Concurrently with the bugbear’s extermination, community members need to un-learn the habit of evaluating the moderators’ words under the bugbear-poisoned version of the Mod Voice. Steady periods without bugbear behaviour, and suspicions it might finally have disappeared, are set back by events such as a user being told they were suspended because they disobeyed a mod (as opposed to “you ignored a Stack guideline/policy”): those events reinforce our paranoia that the bugbear is in fact still out there waiting for us; that we should continue to be fearful of it re-emerging, and so we continue to see the community in this light:
- Things work the way the diamond moderators say they work. The community does what they say, not the other way around.
- Diamond moderators get to say how policy works. The rest of the community only has any say in how policy works if it is compatible with what the diamond moderators say.
- If anyone in the community has an issue with what the diamond moderators are doing, it doesn't matter.
These phenomena had a disastrously harmful effect on our community as the game-rec fiasco was unfolding.
- Multiple members left the site completely or reduced their activity to almost nil. (This is not speculation — there are individuals who have explicitly cited to me the game-rec fiasco and the diamond team’s behaviour as their reason for reducing their activity or leaving the site.)
- Multiple members have expressly stated in How is the community doing? that they just left meta completely. (If they don’t have any voice anyway, what’s the difference?)
- I and some others sharply decreased our curation work and/or meta activity following all of this because we felt this was no longer our site (so why bother?).
The degradation of the community/diamond relationship escalated very soon afterwards when the diamond moderator team proposed re-assessing another tag’s topicality. A significant number of individuals in the community (22 people!) indicated lack of trust in the diamond moderator team’s ability to act in good faith and manage a conflict of interest appropriately. They backed concern that the diamond moderators would not act in the interest of the community but in fact in their own self-interest. This being mere months after the game rec issue, I think it is reasonable to further assert the meta community was largely unwilling to entrust the moderators with another re-evaluation over whether a topic should be banned. The community's mistrust in these fundamental moderator qualities (that they will act in good faith, in the community’s interest, and manage conflicts of interest appropriately) is a major breakdown in the community/diamond relationship.
The trust between the community and the diamond moderators is still enormously damaged and has never been repaired.
Where Do We Go From Here?
The diamond moderators can't change the past, and they want to move forward with everyone else and do good work with the community. However that's difficult to do properly without acknowledging the past and consciously working to address its effects.
I myself have accepted the policy outcomes of what happened (various things getting banned), but I’m still frustrated that the diamond moderators did everything I listed as a problem and I’m not sure how on earth they never realised the extent of the damage they were doing. This is stuff I still need to get over myself, because this frustration gets in the way of interacting with the diamond moderators, including my writing this post.
SevenSidedDie and Mxyzplk, I feel you need to do the following at minimum:
- Acknowledge specifically what things you did that were in breach of acceptable behaviour as community members and as diamond moderators. Show understanding of what you did and why it was a problem. Take responsibility for these actions. See this comment, and note the degree of support it received. (Do this however works for you. I am not expecting it to be a response to this post, nor am I expecting that it must happen immediately.)
- Reflect on how you can restore your interactions with the rest of the community to a healthy working relationship: you need to engage with everyone else as equals and as fellow community members. You must no longer interact with everyone as if you are the site administrators. You must leave behind the bugbear that's poisoning your conversations. In whatever way works for you (doesn’t have to be public), commit yourself to new ways of behaving that foster a healthy site of equals. I see signs you've already started doing this.
- Clean up (yourselves) the past misbehaviour that’s still floating around, rather than shifting the responsibility to everyone else.
Our community’s current situation is unhealthy and unsustainable. I don’t feel a necessary fix is for either of you to step down. If you can’t do any of these things, though, we’ll remain on this unsustainable course and somehow things are going to get worse. I don’t think any of us want the current meta atmosphere to persist.
The rest of the community shares responsibility for our site's health, too. Members need to engage in meta dialog with good faith toward the diamond moderators. The diamond moderators can hardly even propose discussion nowadays without setting off alarm bells. I’ll grant that this is because of the poisoned Mod Voice, but if the diamond moderators take this seriously and work to reintegrate with the community, the whole community needs to give them room in which they can do that. Ordinary community members should give feedback to the diamond moderators on whatever they’re doing that works so that they can do more of that. All of us need to use our community moderation tools courageously and thoughtfully to curate a positive environment by modeling and encouraging desired behaviour and by calling attention to and addressing toxic behaviour, whether through flagging, voting, meta discussion, CM involvement, or any of our other tools as appropriate.
Special thanks goes to BESW, without whose dedicated editing, guidance and balancing perspectives this post could not have been finished.