Code Q&A site Stack Overflow has admitted its community can be hostile to women, people of color, and marginalized groups, and has promised to do better.
It's an acknowledgement of charges leveled against the programming community repeatedly over the years.
Enumerating various barriers to participation, a 2016 research paper about the site observed that only 5.8 per cent of active contributors are women even through 20 per cent of visitors are women.
"The current atmosphere on Stack Overflow is not inclusive and often times disrespectful to others who are not males," the paper stated.
Not trying hard enough
The issue was also raised in 2012 by developer Anna Billstrom. And even back then, Stack Overflow was trying to encourage more civility. There were similar initiatives in subsequent years, evidently with insufficient effect.
In accordance with horror movie tradition, Jay Hanlon, executive veep of culture and experience, now admits the call has been coming from inside the house.
"The real problem isn’t the community – it’s us," said Hanlon in a blog post last week, acknowledging that the site's users regularly express frustration that management hasn't done more to ensure would-be participants feel welcome.
"We trained users to tell other users what they’re doing wrong, but we didn’t provide new folks with the necessary guidance to do it right," he said. "We failed to give our regular users decent tools to review content and easily find what they’re looking for. We sent mixed messages over the years about whether we’re a site for 'experts' or for anyone who codes."
We sent mixed messages over the years about whether we’re a site for 'experts' or for anyone who codes
Hanlon said Stack Overflow has elevated the issue to a priority across various top level teams.
In practical terms, the site plans to shift from warning against misbehavior to encouraging inclusion. It aims to flag and delete unacceptable comments more aggressively, to take steps to make new users feel more welcome, and to discourage responses that judge users for not knowing something.
Hanlon also wants the community to stop using concerns about answer quality as an excuse for condescension.
"This isn’t really new for us," said Hanlon in an email to The Register today.
"Our community is generally awesome, and has always been incredibly diligent about keeping the site free of outright offensive and discriminatory behavior. It gets flagged and removed almost instantly. Since the early days, we as a community have discussed how we can make it easier for new users to feel welcome and better set them up for success, and how to better deal with comments that are (unintentionally) condescending or belittling."
Hanlon said Julia Silge, a data scientist at the company, is working on developing metrics to assess how well these changes work to reduce haughty behavior. "The first step is to define what makes comments read (to humans) as condescending," he said. "Once we do that, we can better track them over time."
Coincidently, the majority of Americans appear to believe that incivility has reached crisis levels. ®