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Rise and Fall of Communities

Over the years, I've been part of many growing online (and offline) communities, usually in some kind of advocate and/or moderation capacity (I'm just a room owner here). Without exception, these communities are now either gone or a shadow of their former self. This was never caused by some intrinsic negative quality. Lots of people with a great personal investment in these communities might argue with great emotional vigor that a downfall is imminent, usually because of one - in the grand scheme of things - completely inconsequential issue.

It might be unintuitive, but I think that sort of discussion is indicative of a thriving community experiencing growing pains common to any kind of group relationship. No, there are much stronger indicators of a platform that's about to die a slow death (platforms never die fast, they fizzle out, in stages of decreasing severity). I'm not going to enumerate them, but I want to highlight two.

The most visible effect might be traffic. Ingress in the form of new, engaged members, and egress in the form of output. The other effect is more abstract. It's the change in how the actual stakeholders (admins, owners what have you) look at what they have created and what it has become. This is an opportunity for the development of huge misunderstanding (on both sides), which in turn leads to alienation due to both sides pulling in different directions.

Businesses are Gonna Business

I work at a 3000+ employee company, in a birds-eye-view position. What I mean is that I see what every one of our 1000+ engineers is doing and how they interact with each other. On the opposite end of the spectrum, I also have a lot of business experience, having founded companies and assisted with fundraising for other startups. Lastly, our company is also pretty special in the technical community building discipline. Every single one of the Fortune500 companies is our customer, and internationally, we exceed 300,000 customers. Now comes the special part: Our own tech community platform, where the IT / SRE / admin folks exchange their problems and solutions exceeds 150,000 individual members. Of course, that platform had growing pains, but so far, we've listened to our users, engaged with them and shaped the platform over time to accommodate the needs of a growing, technical, community.

So from this perspective, I can confidently state that StackExchange (the company) screwed up big time. And I'm not even talking about the problems and behavior that caused me (the person) to leave*. SE has no viable business model. Outward, they present two mechanisms for monetization, both insane.

The first is SE for Teams. If there ever was a feature (from Jobs' criticism of Dropbox being "a feature, not a company") it is this. Other than being overpriced (although some may argue there's no such thing as overprices in B2B sales), it's already part of well-established platforms businesses use today. You can't work at a large company without encountering a massive Confluence instance for example. Those companies are one, single-time, purchase away from enabling Questions for Confluence, which completely replaces SE for Teams and has better integration with systems companies actually use (AD, SAP, SalesForce, ...).

The other one is SE jobs. Well, when I was in a position to actually hire people, I did use SE jobs - or tried to at least. In theory, this is a good idea: We have all the devs, so of course, we would be the best job platform for devs! But that's not how any of this works. People don't keep their profile up to date, the jobs interface is horrendous for employers, SE sales are clueless as to what an employer would actually need. The same thing happened with GitHub Jobs, which is relegated to a tiny, optional box, on the GitHub dashboard now...

So yeah, it ain't looking good. SE has already rolled out changes to their org, specifically community-facing teams, which give a whole lot of credence to speculations of problems at SE. In a pants-on-fire, confused effort to turn this business into an actual company, they can't stop failing. Remember, (big) platforms don't fail fast.

Wait, do you hear something fizzling in the distance?

Moving On

So yeah, I'm out. If anyone wants to chat**, drop me an email at turbo[at]tilde[dot]club

One last thing: One unique, positive (in contrast with the arrogance cesspool that is SO) thing about PPCG (sue me) in particular is that it seems to attract very bright, very young individuals. For them, a bit of advice: Keep golfing, keep solving interesting problems in interesting ways and think about how to apply that to problems that advance your self or your career.

But don't invest your identity in the success of any community, this or any other. Circles of friendship and online forums alike will transform, vanish and others will spring up. Always aim to look beyond your comfort zone, your "bubble", and at the bigger picture. Realize how small and irrelevant issues will be in hindsight that seemed big at the time.

So, in the words of my favorite comedian / poet growing up:

Ich wälze nicht schwere Probleme / und spreche nicht über die Zeit. / Ich weiß nicht, wohin ich dann käme, / ich weiß nur, ich käme nicht weit.

Translation (thanks DeepL):

I don't dwell on serious problems / and don't talk about the times, / I don't know where I would go then, / I just know I wouldn't get far.


* Including, but not limited to: Decline in community engagement, socially tone-deaf handling of volunteer issues, illegal activity in relicensing without consent

** If you're in or around Austin (Texas), Berlin or Brno, hit me up for software engineering job opportunities. If you're a student at UT for more info on internships.

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    \$\begingroup\$ As a young individual myself, I think your advice is sound. It's sad to see a community I've gradually grown to love and respect falling apart, due to SE corporate's lack of respect for their own users. I think I might soon head out, too. \$\endgroup\$ – Redwolf Programs Jan 20 at 3:13
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    \$\begingroup\$ What’s the point of that "I work at a 3000+ employee […]" paragraph, apart from bragging about your job? The entire post could do without it with no change in understandability. \$\endgroup\$ – Fatalize Jan 20 at 7:57
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Fatalize Establishing knowledge/expertise \$\endgroup\$ – isaacg Jan 20 at 17:45
  • \$\begingroup\$ Byebye. I'll always remember that one time we had that one conversation and it was positive for at least one of us. \$\endgroup\$ – Poke Jan 28 at 18:13
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Thanks for your engagement in the community. I look at your answers, and I remember some of them (the image-based ones), which for me is pretty good.

I, too, have withdrawn from SE quite a bit. I continue to post (rarely) on codegolf, and I expect I will participate on SO and a couple others so long as that is where I find solutions to use for my job.

I am currently hoping to see Codidact turn into a better alternative, so I am splitting my time there.

I hope you find/build another community you can enjoy, and perhaps we will see each other there sometime.

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