This is a really hard post to write. It's been coming for a while and I'll admit I'm of mixed feelings about it but I'm making the right decision here even if it hurts a little. A big part of me wants to just walk away quietly and not be noticed in my absence, but that would not solve the underlying reasons for which I'm leaving in the first place.
I will preface what is to come by stating that I don't consider myself one of the 'high rep' users of the site that has the influence to be listened to about how the site should change; I fully expect this note to be ignored by SE but I'm writing it for the same reason that I've spent the last 2 years, 4 months on this site - because it makes ME feel better. You don't often get to write valedictory speeches, so forgive my small indulgence this time.
So; let's get the announcement out of the way first and then I'll deal with the advice. I'm withdrawing from Stack Exchange. I'm not deleting my account or anything that extreme, just not actively participating anymore. I want to stress this is NOT because of GME-19 (the Great Monica Event of 2019), although GME-19 was the thin edge of the wedge. I have a lot of time and respect for Monica and SE treated her very poorly and then the outrage to that was not handled at all well. But, my reasons run a lot deeper.
I came to worldbuilding in particular in November, 2017 after looking up an answer on SO and seeing a HNQ for whether lights were necessary in space and realised that I had an opinion on that, and that not only had it not been expressed yet, but I felt strongly enough to put up my own answer. It was the start of something magical for me as I found that wasn't the only thing I had an answer for. More importantly, some of the questions themselves got me curious. I wanted to know the answer for myself and figured I could with just a little bit of research. I had the seed of an answer, and just had to check a few things to be sure and then wrote up the answer that resulted from my own research.
As a consequence, I have learned a great many things and had a ball doing so. I've learned how dave acts as a magical catalyst, how to make cars unsafe with kinetic energy removal, Why fairy flies experience atmosphere as a syrup, how to grate a humpback whale and of course, whether you can terraform Mars with a bovine orbital bombardment. I've also learned a great deal more about organic chemistry, the science behind vampires, how to both cause and survive apocalyptic events, and literally hundreds of other topics than I ever thought I would in one life, all because of this site.
It was a lot of fun. But, it's not fun anymore so it's time for me to stop and find something to do in my own time that I actually enjoy.
This brings me to the key point of this post - why is SE no longer fun? What is it that SE needs to make the site truly great and would augment everyone's experience, whether as a consumer or as a contributor to the site?
SE, when you get right down to it, is the best open source point-level knowledge generator ever devised. I know, some of you are going to call out Wikipedia, and that is a reasonable answer, but the true value of SE, and why people keep coming back to it, is because if they have a specific question, they can get a specific answer. In that sense, the knowledge base being accumulated is invaluable and is a credit to SE regardless of how people feel about it. But, SE isn't generating this content - we are.
Why do people write open source software and give it away? Because they want to. Because they want to learn how to do something new and they take some satisfaction from seeing their software downloaded and used in the general community. It makes them feel useful in a way that their job often doesn't, because in their job, their boss sets the agenda and tells them what to work on. In an open source project, THEY choose what they want to work on and the usefulness of that work in the community speaks to their own sense of contribution, not the agenda of the business that pays them to do what it is they think is useful.
So it is with us as contributors to SE. I only answer the questions I 'like' and if they are found useful by the community, I feel a sense of achievement from that. This gamification of solution providing is a powerful tool, but only so long as the contributors feel that sense of satisfaction. I no longer feel that. It's become a grind, and one that is more often un-appreciated from where I stand. I don't feel like I'm appreciated as an 'asset' by the community; in point of fact, I feel like I'm more likely to be treated as a 'resource', with the value of my contribution more likely to be criticised than welcomed. I feel that of late, this has only become worse and the tipping point has now been reached for me which is why I need to walk away.
So, to SE (not that I think you're reading this), I have two points that I need to make to you - if you want to keep people contributing, you have to change the structure of comments and introduce off topic forums. Controversial points I know, and many of you are not going to agree. I'll make my case below for both, however.
Comments in their current form need to die a slow, lingering, painful death of something embarrassing, like untreated syphilis. In my opinion, comments are the single largest generator of negative opinion towards this site and the larger contributors to it. The strange thing is that this is a no brainer to me and I find it amazing that no-one else sees this.
In theory, comments are meant to allow users to improve existing questions and answers by providing constructive criticism so that the person responsible for the post can edit it and make it better. But in practice, it's the weapon of choice used by snipers (people who want to cut down existing answers either so that they get deleted out of frustration to reduce competition, or people who have no intention of putting up an answer of their own but like to cut down those who do) and these have far more of an impact on the contributor than the rep score does. It shouldn't be that way, but most users I've seen are more likely to get worked up about a negative comment than seeing their answer get 20x up votes. Part of that is that the comment is words, whereas the rep is just a number. We are not encouraged to leave positive comments as that is seen as a waste - if the answer is already good and doesn't need improvement, why comment at all? What's the benefit?
But, comments are (whether I like it or not) essential to the operation of the site nonetheless. How do we make them better? How do we make them work?
Assign them a cost.
Here's my approach - for every comment you leave, you give one of your rep points to the person on whose post you leave that comment. The rationale is simple - the post has attracted your attention, so it's worthy of additional reputation. But, if you have a good idea, then the OP will update their post and you can safely delete your comment, regaining your rep point (but leaving a rep point with the OP). If nothing happens, and you leave your comment there, you lose your rep point and if it is eventually deleted by a Mod, you lose it permanently.
Mods could leave comments for free for obvious reasons, but everyone else (just like with neg votes) would have to consider whether or not it is worth the cost to leave a comment. It doesn't preclude them, they just have to be important enough to the user to pay for it.
For the record, I stopped responding to comments 6 months ago. I stopped reading them 4 months ago. I now just clear the notifications, because I reached a point where reading them was a waste as they were not contributing anything constructive to the discussion. So, if you've recently left me a comment, please be aware that it is really important to me; please hold...
Off Topic Forums (or Fora if you prefer)
Dear Increasingly Hypothetical SE Reader, I am a human being, not a free source of content. I blame you personally for the comments model and how it is being used by other human beings. Why? Because when we can't communicate except around a very narrow domain of topics, it dehumanises us to each other. We are not human beings to each other, we are users. We are icons of varying design that sit beside content with which we may or may not agree. The trouble is, when I write a comment on something, I'm not writing to the content; I'm writing to a person.
We as a community must bear some responsibility for ensuring that we are nice to each other to be sure, but you don't make it easy. You don't give us the tools we need to know each other as more than just icons beside content. You don't (for example) give us an off topic site where we can learn about each other beyond the narrow domain of our common interest in contributing content to your site. As such, you make it really hard for us to be constructive without giving offence because we don't get to know what turns of phrase annoy the person for whom we are leaving the content; what they are likely to respond to, what is going to hurt them, what the context is that they bring to the content to make it appear wrong to us. All we can know about each other is the sum of our questions and answers, and that is so very far from who I am as a person. SE is so small a slice of who I am that it will barely register as a blip on my personal radar in terms of volume. Importance is another matter, but SE doesn't account for a significant percentage of my output at all. I would like to think that I've helped a lot of people via this medium, but I am not so arrogant for a second to believe it. Entertainment value, perhaps. But I doubt I've been of a lot of help to more than a few handfuls of individuals via this site.
If you're asking why that's important, then you shouldn't be in charge of the SE community. People are going to respond to each other with more dignity, respect and understanding if they feel like they know the person as an individual. The whole Monica thing was supposed to have been about members showing respect to each other, but (in point of fact), SE still has yet to see the forest for the trees; instead of focusing on pronouns, it should be focusing on people. Do that and the respect for each other comes on its own; respect is pushing against an open door instead of being forced upon the community through a narrow set of pronouns that must be adopted and to hell with any perceived non-compliance.
That's why on most forum sites, the off topic forum is the most active forum there. It's because in order to act as a team of contributors, they must first be a team, not just a collection of like minded individuals set to a common purpose. Getting individuals to form up into high performing teams is impossible if you don't let them get to know each other in a broader context than the task you set them to. By deliberately discouraging that kind of conversation, you're not enriching the content at all; you're putting a glass ceiling on its value that will never be breached.
The fact that SE has achieved so much using the 'collection of individuals' model is a testament to the original community engagement people, but (respectfully) it's also the millstone around your neck. You can't go to the next level without building teams out of these individuals, and you're not going to achieve that with content alone. You need to shape a common personality, common vision and sense of contribution that goes beyond up votes. We as a community of contributors need to know each other beyond the content and the comments thereon.
SE's single biggest asset is its community of contributors - this is also its single biggest liability as it is not a team. Neither is it a resource and right now, that's what I feel like - a resource.
I'm not saying that I'll never be back and there's a part of me that still has to 'break the habit' that is worldbuilding but it's time for me to withdraw. Some users here I'll miss, some like JBH I miss already. Others - well, not so much. That will be true of us all I suspect.
I do find myself concerned that I'm leaving this site without an active Tim B for the first time. I'm pretty sure that any legends of this being one of the signs of a coming apocalypse is without basis but if it turns out I'm wrong, I apologise in advance. That said, there is a lot of very useful information on this site as to how to survive it, so I'm sure you'll all be fine.
In any event; adieu to you all, be nice to each other, post more answers than comments, and I wish you all the satisfaction that I no longer get on this site.