Iterating on Inclusion

Last year, we wrote about our important work to build a more welcoming and inclusive community. This summer, I wrote about how we are evolving our product to encourage better interactions and guidance. While there’s still a lot more to do, we’ve begun to take concrete steps toward a better coding community for everyone. This is the most important work we’re doing in our community, and our first wave of improvements are starting to show results. 

Here’s one concrete example: For some time, we’ve been using machine learning to flag comments that might be potentially troublesome in the community, especially if they could be seen as hostile to new users. (Our tool for evaluating and flagging those comments, called the Unfriendly Comment Classifier, is pretty great! We’ve got details on how it works here.) After we tuned the flagging tool to ensure it was reliably detecting troublesome comments, we used it to measure the impact of the new policy and product changes we’ve been making to improve community health.

Those changes, along with thousands and thousands of you working to make the Stack Overflow community more friendly, have cut the number of troublesome comments in half. Our moderators are the front lines of this, and they’ve helped to ensure this place is more welcoming for everyone. We appreciate all their hard work, and we’ve seen a reduction in the odds of a new comment being detected as abusive go from 2.6% of new comments down to 1.3% in the past 18 months. All our analysis indicates this is a real decrease in unfriendliness in our community, not just an artifact from how the model is trained or other effects.

Now, we’re not declaring victory here. There’s still a lot of work to do—but we want to acknowledge the incredible work that the community, our moderators, and our product teams have been able to accomplish together to make meaningful improvements.

We’ve also been learning a lot through this process, such as clarifying policy, setting explicit expectations, and empowering the community to raise the bar. All of these changes make Stack Overflow more welcoming. And as you’d expect, that means we’re going to do more of it.


What’s Next

Following on this work, we’ve begun our next community initiative to make improvements specifically designed to make Stack Overflow more welcoming. This takes the form of another similar clarification and setting of expectations, this time around a different section of the Code of Conduct. Since a lot of our readers are developers, here’s a diff:

Our original text says:

Be kind and friendly.

Avoid sarcasm and be careful with jokes — tone is hard to decipher online. If a situation makes it hard to be friendly, stop participating and move on.
“Be inclusive and respectful”
Our new tenet is:

Be inclusive and respectful.

Avoid sarcasm and be careful with jokes — tone is hard to decipher online. Prefer gender-neutral language when uncertain. If a situation makes it hard to be friendly, stop participating and move on.

This section:

No bigotry.

We don’t tolerate any language likely to offend or alienate people based on race, gender, sexual orientation, or religion — and those are just a few examples. When in doubt, just don’t.

“No bigotry”
is now:

No bigotry.

We don’t tolerate any language likely to offend or alienate people based on race, gender, sexual orientation, or religion — and those are just a few examples. Use stated pronouns (when known). When in doubt, don’t use language that might offend or alienate.

In software, we release, learn, and iterate to make our products robust and effective. Though people are not code, this is one place where the analogy holds: learning and improving as we go will help us reduce errors and makes it more likely information will get accurately transmitted. On a more human level, it’s a kind and respectful thing to do.

By adding this update, we want to make it clear that the Code of Conduct requires people to use the correct gender pronouns when someone shares their pronouns or makes them public. It also means that respecting anyone less because of their gender identity or pronouns is off limits. This has always been true of our Code of Conduct and we are making it more explicit with this language. This isn’t a new rule or a change to our policy. We found there was confusion, and we’ve clarified the language to make things abundantly clear. 

We recognize using different pronouns can sometimes be challenging for people who don’t speak English as their first language. There are lots of great resources online to help guide folks with questions, including this. We will also be sharing FAQs with our moderators and community, and are here to answer your questions. 

The goal here is an obvious one: we want to build a better culture, where community members don’t have to justify who they are or explain why their identity is worth respecting. Stack Overflow and the Stack Exchange network are here for everyone to be who they are.

Running the Code

Now that we’ve got an updated Code of Conduct, it’s time to put the code into production. This is a good chance to practice being mindful of people’s pronouns, and, as there are people who may be new to this kind of consideration, it’s also a great opportunity to support other community members learning to get this right.

The key thing is, this goes for all of us. Whether we’re regular users, moderators, or even employees at Stack Overflow, we all work together to make sure the community is welcoming. When we see violations of our Code of Conduct, we’ll work with users to ensure that they follow the same clear expectations as everyone else in the community. Though it’s very rare, it’s worth saying explicitly that in cases where the Code of Conduct is willfully violated by someone after we’ve addressed the issue to them before, that user will be removed from the community—even if they’re a moderator or a user with a lot of rep. It’s especially important that new or returning community members who are building (or rebuilding) trust in the community see that everyone—users, moderators, employees, everyone—is held to this standard.

That way, we all work together to look out for people who may need protection in online communities the most, like our transgender, non-binary, and gender non-conforming members.


Going Forward

We’re excited about the things we’ve released in the first phase of helping our community get to a place that is more welcoming and inclusive. How can we tell if we’re succeeding at this? Well, there are a few ways. Metrics like “number of comments flagged” and “users that come back to ask a second question after their first experience” help us. In Q2, we released a Site Satisfaction Survey that polls a sample of anonymous and logged in users on Stack Overflow. In the survey, we specifically asked what we could be doing better and report against how many people tell us they don’t feel included or welcome. This is what we’re watching closest. 

Over the next few months, you’re going to see a lot more of this from us. As part of this next phase of work, we’re going to work to fix features that make people feel like they’ve been publicly shamed, and reduce some of the social friction that is built into our product. Soon, there will be no more big yellow boxes that say “these five people voted your question is bad,” because nobody likes that feeling! Instead, there will be clear guidance on how to improve questions when they need more information or better formatting.

Think of the difference between how great it feels when you get a really good code review or pair programming session as compared to that terrible feeling if you make a code commit or pull request and someone slaps it down. Stack Overflow should feel as good as the intentions of those who help each other in the community.

We’re also working on providing more help and support to our moderators and plan to continue to improve the tools they use every day. Our team is developing clearer guidance around how to detect when someone is being excluded and what to do about it. Each of them should feel valued and accepted. These stewards of the community are the backbone of what we do and we greatly value the time they put in evaluating flags, questions, and comments in service of making this community a better place. We’re thankful to them for continuing to improve Stack Overflow, and especially thankful to our community for pushing Stack Overflow to be every bit as welcoming as it is informative.

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Comments

  1. José Antonio Durá Olmos says:

    “Use stated pronouns (when known). When in doubt, don’t use language that might offend or alienate.”

    When asked to use a pronoun I will do so.

    When required to use a pronoun with no other options or else suffer suspension I shall not. When required to keep engaged or be suspended I shall not. My only option then, if this CoC remains in force, will be to fully disengage from Stack Exchange.

    I am very much in favour of suspending those who, after being told “Do not refer to me as he, rather use they please”, obnoxiously insist on using he.

    But silence should always be an option in normal speech. Disengagement should always be an option in normal social relationships. And with that I do not mean posting “I refuse to use your pronoun so I shall disengage from you henceforth”. Disengagement and silence means not clicking the “Submit” button in a response to the one you are disengaging from.

    Giving people protection from not being called a pronoun which is felt offensive seems reasonable. Disallowing the use of the user name and instead mandating a pronoun seems quite excessive to me. It was chosen by the person being referred to after all.

    That being said, being hasty is no good. I’ll abide by this CoC for a short time to see if there is enough backlash to make it change. If after such time silence remains not being an option here then silence will be my option.

    1. This. I think the maxim “assume good faith” should apply toward people using “traditional” pronouns by default.

    2. I totally agree. This comment sounds like common sense to me.
      But with this new extremely strict code of conduct, I am mentally preparing myself to get banned when either a person or algorithm deems something I say potentially offensive, and good intent no longer presumed.

  2. Cindy Meister says:

    You might want to re-read and edit: You’ve repeated two entire paragraphs starting with “The key thing is…”

  3. You have ruined the stackexchange network with all of your drama.

  4. Shadow Wizard says:

    What exactly is “gender-neutral language”? Can you please clarify with details? As non-native English speaker, I honestly don’t know what this means exactly.

    I can guess, but that won’t end well.

    1. This just means using words that don’t specify whether someone is male or female when you don’t know for sure. Use “they” instead of “he” or “she”, use “person” instead of “man” or “woman”, etc.

    2. Cory Fowler says:

      Here is the guidance provided by the United Nations. https://www.un.org/en/gender-inclusive-language/

      1. Actually here are the guidelines from the UN on gender inclusive language: https://www.un.org/en/gender-inclusive-language/guidelines.shtml

        I can’t find anything related to preferred pronouns on it…

  5. The “diff” presentation doesn’t make a lot of sense, and is very confusing. Have you just highlighted at random instead of what’s actually changed?

    1. Also images as code 🙁

    2. I agree — it seems like they’ve forgotten how diffs work. The purpose of a diff is to show how things changed by showing both the before and the after, in a way that the two are easy to compare.

      These ‘diff’ images show us only the after.

  6. Requiring use of requested pronouns is coercing speech. The notion that not using requested pronouns is presented as offensive by definition. This makes two unproven assumptions. One, that not being offended is a right. Two, that the individual requester is, by definition, always right and that everyone else either uses the language they request, or they are wrong.

    1. “One, that not being offended is a right.”

      Well, “we don’t want you to use our platform to offend people” is a right that StackExchange definitely has.

      “Two, that the individual requester is, by definition, always right and that everyone else either uses the language they request, or they are wrong.”

      Of course that’s the case! How could it be otherwise? If someone says “please don’t refer to me as ‘she'” and you do it anyway, you’re being deliberately offensive by using the *wrong* pronoun. Literally the only way to know the right pronoun, is to ask the person in question.

  7. To what extent am I allowed to express the opinion that I don’t believe this definition of gender is meaningful?

  8. Thank you so much for this!! Super excited to see the community be more inclusive and welcoming.

  9. Kyle Strand says:

    This addition seems entirely appropriate:

    > Prefer gender-neutral language when uncertain.

    The other addition, about _requiring_ stated pronouns, is of course where the current controversy has been. But your paraphrase is, to me, even more confusing:

    > …the Code of Conduct requires people to use the correct gender pronouns when someone shares their pronouns or **makes them public**.

    Does this mean that if someone has their pronouns in their Twitter bio, and those pronouns do not include “they”, and their Twitter account is in any way “publicly known” to be held by a Stack Overflow user, that it is the responsibility of anyone choosing to talk to this person _not_ to use “they”, since in the desired pronouns have been “made public”? Or do pronouns only count as being “made public” for the purpose of this policy if they’re expressed:

    * …anywhere on the StackExchange network?
    * …on the specific StackExchange site where the conversation is taking place?
    * …in the user’s StackExchange bio for that site?
    * …in the actual conversation where “they” is used?

    I realize that this could just be an oversight in how you’ve phrased the requirement, but I believe the same question applies to the proposed CoC phrasing.

    (For the record, I agree with some of the other concerns expressed, such as that this CoC would permit punishing users for disengaging from conversations.)

    1. It appears that this particular concern is addressed in [a comment on an answer on the Official FAQ](https://meta.stackexchange.com/questions/334900/official-faq-on-gender-pronouns-and-code-of-conduct-changes?page=3&tab=votes#comment1101050_335182). I hope the clarification makes its way into the FAQ itself.

  10. “*Now that we’ve got an updated Code of Conduct, it’s time to put the code into production.*”

    It seems like code review did not approve.

  11. I’d like if we just cut all the crap that precedes the Going Forward section. In the Going Forward section you point to actual things that might help newbies navigate SO and the rest of the SE universe. I think getting rid of “These five users closed your bad question” banner is a great idea. A custom and fun message that says “Aw snap! We had some problems getting the answers together for you. Maybe you could help us help you.” Then link to some meta stuff. Hell, they need to *know* meta is a thing in the first place, where we, the community, decide the posting rules for the site.

    The whole message along the way for any newbie should be “Hey, we want you here. Whether you have questions or answers, please, play with us. We do have some rules though, like any great game, so please don’t take it as a reprimand when we have to help you with them.”

    1. Matthew Harris says:

      Actually I prefer the “bad” message. I’m a coder, I want specific logic, not emotions that I have to interpret 🙂

      I didn’t come here to be human, I came here to talk logic!

      haha oh no I used humour which isn’t allowed any more.

  12. Thank you for making this change, even if the process has been uncomfortable. I know I’ve still got some bad writing habits and occasionally use male pronouns by default; having an official policy will help improve our culture. I’ve already caught myself using the wrong pronouns twice since this episode began.

    If building a more inclusive community requires a few weeks of drama, hundreds of straw person arguments, and losing a few religious extremists, it will be a small price to pay in the long run.

    1. – “If building a more inclusive community requires a few weeks of drama, hundreds of straw person arguments, and losing a few religious extremists, it will be a small price to pay in the long run.”

      Yep, by your last line, I can see how “much more inclusive” you’ve become.
      Congratulations.

  13. After having gone through several of the posts related to this issue, and their responses, I am not sure what to say. I have not upvoted or downvoted anything I have read, because I believe in the importance of collecting one’s thoughts before coming to a conclusion. And in fact, there is a genuine dilemma here, between conflicting values. Those values are between making those of a disadvantaged social group feel welcome on this site, and making allowances for freedom of conscience. There is no solution or “trick” that will make the two horns of this dilemma go away.

    Regarding gender pronouns, there is no established, widely accepted etiquette, and I think it was a mistake for SO to take an official stance on this issue. For example, an opinion piece in the New York Times promoted the singular “they” just this year, and now I’m being told that there are members are the LGBTQ+ community who will object to anything except the use of their preferred pronoun. This is all still new, and I’m not sure why SO felt a need to revise their COC to reflect an opinion that is only widely held by a small, but vocal part of their community. One small silver lining is that because of this controversy, I have been forced to think hard about this issue, and my opinion now is not what it was before all this started.

    As for the issue of de-modding a well-respected user, I don’t think it’s a good idea for me to say anything. Appearances can be misleading, and I don’t think I should say something before reading the actual e-mail conversation that led up to the decision to de-mod the user and speak to an online publication about that decision. I have a feeling that whatever it is, the truth will come out in the end.

  14. Khushal Khan says:

    Most people came here just to get help on their coding problems, calling me he or she or anything else is perhaps the least important thing. As long as SO delivers its core value I don’t care about anything else. Wonder why many of you are taking pronouns so personal.

    1. Matthew Harris says:

      I think its because it’s compelled speech which has much deeper implications.

      And probably because we are coders and we want an API but the whole pronouns thing is updated in real-time for every user.

      It doesn’t scale, and to stretch the analogy, you can’t put a billing cap on it, so making a mistake can seriously harm your accounts standing.

  15. Alberto Rosales says:

    I hope you don’t try to do that in Spanish, because it is almost impossible. It would require to re-write the rules of the language, or to create new words. Every noun in Spanish has a grammatical gender. It is part of the language. Heck, even things have a gender in the Spanish language.

    1. They are going to have a field day with your language, señor. But believe me, it’s coming.

    2. Ismael Miguel says:

      This!!! Exactly this!!! This happens in Portuguese too.

      Also, there’s the Portuguese Stack Exchange (https://pt.stackoverflow.com/).
      One of the things that one can do is to translate a question and re-ask there (https://pt.stackoverflow.com/help/translate-from-english).

      Refering to the English code and/or to the O.P. will force people to:
      1- Use pronouns that don’t exist in Portuguese (they, zhe, xe, ….);
      2- Use non-gender-neutral pronouns (ele/ela, eles/elas);
      3- Adapt the gendered male plural (eles) as a replacement for the pronoun they (common usage, but is against the new code, and will sound weird in many situations);
      4- Write in a gender-neutral way (almost impossible, or very awkward [e.g.: “o/a postador/a original” – the original poster]);
      5- Give up to avoid having the account suspended (my personal choice).

      This code seems to have been written by someone that doesn’t know that there’s more than 1 language in the world, and more than 1 language is used accross the StackExchange network.

  16. One trick I’ve picked up that uses gender-neutral language yet remains grammatically correct is to pluralize the antecedent, and thus the pronoun:

    Every student will turn in his homework on time.

    vs

    Students will turn in their homework on time.

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