Thanks to some amazing efforts and collaboration between our veteran users and quite a few new faces that jumped in to help us with our inclusion efforts, our brand new Code of Conduct (CoC) is rolling off the press and going into effect across the network today. For those of you that haven’t been following along with announcements we’ve been making on our Meta site, we’re replacing our current ‘Be nice’ policy with a formal, far less ambiguous and way more informative Code of Conduct.
As far as our rules go, nothing really changes: we’re just clarifying that we don’t have space for belittling language and condescension, while more deliberately setting people’s expectations surrounding what to expect when problems are flagged. By resolving some ambiguity, we’re able to apply the rules that we’ve had for quite some time more consistently, resulting in fewer instances where it seems like we didn’t have any rules at all. That’s the gist of it, but if you’ll indulge us, we’d like to take a deeper look into how we got here.
Social contracts are an essential cornerstone of any collaborative project. A group’s shared expectations of how its members should treat one another not only helps their project stay on course, but also help outsiders decide if the group seems like a safe place for them to contribute. Since its inception in mid-2008, Stack Overflow and our subsequent network of Stack Exchange sites managed to flourish under a single guiding principle that everyone was expected to follow:
.. Be nice.
Stack Overflow began with a community of folks that were avid readers and pundits of Joel On Software and Coding Horror. As the initial community had some experience interacting with one another, “Be nice” was sufficient as a beacon to pull people back from over-enthusiastically critiquing other user’s contributions. We knew what ‘nice’ meant; that caused us not to notice how ambiguous our policy was as our community ballooned from thousands to millions of people in a very short amount of time.
Gruenert and Whitaker made a very astute assertion when they said that “The culture of any organization is shaped by the worst behavior the leader is willing to tolerate.” People look at the best and the worst that a new community might offer in exchange for a contribution, and our worst began to look increasingly troublesome over time.
We looked at examples of things that people were reporting as making them feel unwelcome and it seemed like a bit of a paradox: phrases like “Well, that’s clearly not nice, why wasn’t that flagged and removed?” dominated conversations that we were having about it. The reality became pretty clear: even our expanded ‘Be nice’ policy simply was not specific enough to meet the needs of a much larger dynamic that our sites had grown to be.
What became clear is that we needed to be way more specific about what we meant when we were asking people to be nice, how we hoped folks would react when they encountered behavior that wasn’t great, and some examples that would allow people to better embrace the intent of what the document was hoping to accomplish.
.. Be nice, here’s how, here’s why, and here’s what to do if someone isn’t.
Really, please, take a moment to read the new Code of Conduct now. It’s not long, it’s not wordy-and-legalese-y and in our long held tradition, we feel that it does a good job of assuming that the vast majority of folks that use our sites always have the best intentions at heart.
But we’re not done, not by a long shot. Our research indicates that the most problematic places on our sites tend to be free-form comments, so we’re working diligently on coming up with a way that lets users express feedback through the system; this not only ensures that users see compassionate, actionable guidance, but also helps remove the perception that there are people taking pleasure in picking at their work.
We’re also working on new features to help new users ask questions that are much more in line with what our active community needs in order to provide fast and accurate answers. With Stack Overflow soon turning 10, a UX audit and overhaul to help ensure users discover the right information and tools at the right time is long overdue. Our efforts in this department are perennial; there will always be room for improvements.
Our CoC is what we call a living document. It’s designed to change over time to ensure that it remains relevant by continuing to meet the needs of our communities. Every six months or so, we plan to find out how folks feel about how things are going by asking both new and experienced users about their recent experiences on the site. There’s also a code of conduct tag folks can use on Meta Stack Exchange to ask questions about, or propose changes to the CoC.
Finally, we’d like to thank everyone that patiently worked with us in order to come up with a code of conduct that we think will make folks feel safe about contributing, but not so formal that it feels like oppressive, humid air. If it were not for our most engaged users working in tandem with many people that we only started reaching once they heard that we were working on this, we wouldn’t have anything close to what we accomplished together. We’re sincerely lucky to have all of you.
And, be nice to one another— all of you deserve nothing less than that.