# Firing mods and forced relicensing: sudden changes at SE

Thank you to Martin Sleziak for bringing this to my attention on the math meta chat.

I would just like to inform the Math SE community of a recent change in behaviour from Stack Exchange (meta post).

Basically, Stack Exchange announced without prior discussion that the content licence was being retroactively changed for all posts. On September 27, Stack Exchange fired community moderator Monica Cellio from all sites over an unrelated disagreement.

This event has signalled a change in attitude from Stack Exchange. For the past year or so, I feel as Stack Exchange has been growing more and more disconnected from the community. Stack Exchange's growing lack of transparency, lack of engagement with the community, and a general lack of empathy is a marked shift from what I expected SE to be. This has only created a lack of trust, which will not be resolved until SE proactively tries to bridge the gap.

So I would like to ask you guys:

1. What are your opinions on this issue?

2. Are there any actions we can take as a community? For example, what do you think about having the moderators resign/stop moderating in protest of the change in attitude?

• The content license and the demodding of Monica Cellio are very separate phenomena. Yes, they may be related via a common possible "root cause" such as lack of transparency/lack of engagement with the community etc (I myself am not sure), but the discussion under that angle would be very abstract and in my opinion not much useful. Perhaps it is better to treat these events separately if/when people are to discuss about them. – Aloizio Macedo Sep 30 '19 at 15:04
• I have to admit that forced relicensing sounds terrifying, until you realize that they move from one version of CC-by-SA to another. Not saying that it's alright, just that it's not as bad as moving from some free usage license to one that they get to charge future royalties or whatever. – Asaf Karagila Sep 30 '19 at 21:43
• @AsafKaragila The problem with the re-licensing is the fact that Stack Exchange thinks it can do this when it seems pretty obvious that it can't legally, or if it can then that would shatter a foundational understanding of what contributing here means. When you're being accused of violating the copyright of virtually your entire userbase, simply ignoring it is not an acceptable response. There is other weird stuff around this. as well. – Derek Elkins left SE Oct 1 '19 at 4:03
• Agree with @AloizioMacedo. According to The Register, the Cellio firing is part of the pronoun madness sweeping over the SV tech scene (cf. similar things happening on Wikipedia). Meanwhile, from what I understand, the retroactive license change is controversial not because of the actual difference between the new license and the old one (which is minor), but rather because of its likely judicial unsoundness. From what I understand, ... – darij grinberg Oct 1 '19 at 19:29
• @JyrkiLahtonen: Reassuring (but not too surprising) to hear that Finland has let this bandwagon pass. I am talking not about the "is transgender real" question (enough data for it) but about the line of reasoning that anything reminding people of their old selves ("deadnaming", "wrong" pronouns etc.) is an attack on their very existence and a danger to their well-being. This sort of standard is turning trivial questions into ethical conundra, and it is questionable ... – darij grinberg Oct 2 '19 at 16:15
• @darijgrinberg It's not "self-contradictory" or an "ever-moving target". The goal with pronouns is, was, and probably forever will be, to call people by the pronouns they prefer. There's nothing more complicated to it than that. Also, "if we treat them as they want to be treated now, there's no telling what they'll want next" is not so much an argument as a queerphobic slippery slope fallacy. – Theo Bendit Oct 3 '19 at 7:45
• @TheoBendit: Activists are claiming control not just over how people are being addressed (fortunately, there is not much to complain about here, as 2nd person pronouns are genderless in English), but over how people are being talked about (3rd person), including things like citations of published work. It's not like no one has ever complained about similar issues -- misspelled names, incorrectly inferred nationalities and genders -- before, but never until the recent 10 or so years has there been such a moral panic accompanying the complaints, all the way up to murder accusations. Yes, ... – darij grinberg Oct 3 '19 at 7:58
• ... your accusation of queerphobia is an example, although it pales in comparison with the sort of abuse one typically gets in non-STEM-focused places (it is also getting my comment wrong, since I'm worried not so much about trans activists misusing their new found influence, but about everyone else copying the same short-term winning move). Let me ask the question differently: An author gets disillusioned with the USA and asks everyone to stop labeling them an "American researcher" or to mention their long-time academic institution; they furthermore attempt to get journals to ... – darij grinberg Oct 3 '19 at 8:10
• ... retroactively remove their US affiliation from papers already published. For good measure, people raising issues with this get accused of making the author's life a living hell and possibly driving them to suicide. How should the community react to such demands? I don't know; the thing is, it might indeed be better for everyone involved in a case like this to just remove the extraneous information and go on with their lives. But the long-term externalities of such a reaction include more and more activists gaming this sort of destructive influence (crybullying) for much less harmless ... – darij grinberg Oct 3 '19 at 8:15
• To illustrate the "ever-moving target" aspect: Did you know that "they" is no longer considered a harmless pronoun, and can indeed be misgendering? Now this is HuffPost, so it should be taken with an even greater grain of salt than anything else in this genre, but it's not the first time I'm hearing this idea either. My impression is that there is a significant community of activists for whom crying wolf is the name of the game, so it is naive to expect that common ground will ever be reached. – darij grinberg Oct 3 '19 at 8:26
• @darijgrinberg To illustrate how this is not a moving target, obviously there are people who don't want to be called "they". If they're sensitive to it, people will tell you which pronouns they prefer. If they tell you that "they, them" are no appropriate pronouns, then listen, just as you would listen to me if you got my name wrong. If you made an honest mistake once or twice, then that's fine. If you refuse to call people their names or pronouns just because you want them and their concerns marginalised (and fear what they may want from you next), that is genuinely oppressive and regressive. – Theo Bendit Oct 3 '19 at 8:38
• @darijgrinberg I think it's also worth pointing out that this "inconsistency" that you're referring to is in the individual preferences of hundreds of millions of people. It's kind of like someone saying "I spoke to one cisgendered person, and they said 'call me him'. I then spoke to another and they said 'call me her'. When will cisgendered people make up their mind!" – Theo Bendit Oct 3 '19 at 9:35
• @CalumGilhooley I would say that we should revisit such issues. The fact that fearmongering like Darren Greenberg's comment could be upvoted seven times, or that fedja's answer could be upvoted no less than *thirty*(!!) times (with a net score of 7) shows the problem with letting a problem like this fester under the surface. All available information suggests that Monica's firing was unjust, but I can see why SE is reacting so stridently to this stuff. – Theo Bendit Oct 3 '19 at 22:57
• I am not convinced that continuing the discussion in this comment thread is useful. It might better fit a chat. (I do not move yet.) – quid Oct 3 '19 at 23:07
• I just stumbled onto this. As a parent of a transgender man, I find the actions taken by the SE CM against Ms. Cellio to be appalling. – Ron Gordon Oct 7 '19 at 14:27

## 3 Answers

Regarding your two questions:

1. One problem with this situation (I mean the dismissal, not the license change) is that few have a complete picture of the situation. Even moderators only have a partial understanding of it. I am far from being one of the most involved in this, but I can assure you that I expended already more time on this than I am happy to admit, am very unhappy about certain things SE did or did not do, and did make this known. However, it is a complicated situation; fairness dictates to say that it can hardly be denied that SE did actually try to solve a relevant problem.

2. The change in attitude, it is hard to quantify. This site was in considerable conflict with SE representatives in the past, I mean mostly a more distant past and resignations happened back then. Yet, recently, there is nothing site-specific I could complain about. But, generally, if there is something that you, individually or collectively, find problematic I recommend to make it known here or at another place you find suitable, but preferably here or the main meta. Needless to say, keep it specific and professional. I understand why some colleagues on other sites resigned or suspended their activity and what happened did impact my perception of SE significantly. Then, if I stop moderating this site, at least in the short term, the negative effect of this (at least for the sake of argument let us assume it would be a negative effect) it would mostly affect the users of this site not SE.

To sum up, I think it is a bad situation and I consider it as legitimate and even useful to articulate this. At the same time, I think we should try to resist impulsive actions driven by the dynamic of crowds. That is to say, everybody that is upset about something specific should make this known and act according to their convictions (yet always in a civil way). However, what I would caution against are dynamics where everybody becomes enraged because everybody else seems enraged and thus something outrageous must be there. (I do not want to imply this is your case, but I believe to have noted aspects of this.)

• To avoid any risk of confusion this is my answer, not a collective one of the moderators of this site. – quid Sep 30 '19 at 15:47
• I would just like to clarify. I mean the 'change in attitude', since of course the Code of Conduct has not been revised yet. – Toby Mak Oct 1 '19 at 5:22
• +1 I appreciate your advice on point 2 and I find it quite useful, so please keep it when you edit your answer. – Toby Mak Oct 1 '19 at 5:33
• This situation is so weird. I know Monica from the early days of hermeneutics.SE before it became Christians-only, and honestly I have seldom interacted with someone so reasonable and thoughtful in a tricky situation. It's easy to quickly map this onto broader politics, but Monica isn't against being polite to people, she doesn't think you should keep calling someone by pronouns they've asked you not to use, and she's made it clear that part of the harm to her in this situation is that it's lead to anti-LGBTQ people trying to claim her as part of a cause she disagrees with. – Noah Snyder Oct 7 '19 at 16:01
• @NoahSnyder indeed it is a complex situation. The following recent Meta post might shed some light on it. – quid Oct 9 '19 at 9:46

There is now a second apology, from the CTO this time. It is far better than the first (in particular, it personally apologizes to Monica Cellio), but still misses the heart of the matter. It rightly concedes that nothing resembling process was followed in the de-modding of Monica Cellio, and vaguely promises to create "a process for handling moderator removals, and a process for reinstating moderators who wish to be reinstated". It completely lacks any discussion about the merit of the CoC changes, any opportunity for democratic feedback of the new CoC (only the moderators are being consulted, and the extent to which they are being listened to is not specified), and any acknowledgment of the fact that the rules being pushed are at odds with long-term practice in some of the best-functioning SE communities. Apparently, SO does not trust its own workplace.stackexchange community, of all places, to have an opinion on its new CoC?

As to "actions we can take as a community": I think it is worth delaying any action until Oct 11, when the new CoC is released. There is a good chance that no action will be needed afterwards as all the bones of contention will have been removed from it by then. There is another good chance, unfortunately, that whoever set the Cellio firing into motion will lash out at other moderators in the following days, and there will be enough of a rift in the community that the best course of action will be to take the public dumps, fire up the old MathOverflow software and leave. Everything in-between is possible as well, and a lot of strategizing done now will be hopelessly out of date in a week. One thing is clear for now -- transparency is not to be expected from SO.

EDIT: The new CoC is out. The relevant part is this:

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.

The relevant part of it appears to be all in the little sentence "Use stated pronouns (when known)", which is a rather harmless-looking request but whose actual reach depends a lot on how it will actually be enforced. (That said, the implicit claim that failure to use stated pronouns is "bigotry" is ridiculous, but I'm letting this slide as a misleading headline.) The FAQ, however, is more disruptive:

We are asking everyone to use all stated pronouns as you would naturally write. Explicitly avoiding using someone’s pronouns because you are uncomfortable is a way of refusing to recognize their identity and is a violation of the Code of Conduct.

For now, we don't know how it will be enforced, but I think we need to keep a site move (via public dumps or likewise) in mind as an option if SE moderators start interfering significantly with the m.se community. (A unilateral site move would, of course, make all existing votes non-attributable, but the m.se community is not overly fixated on counting votes.)

• CTO?${}{}{}{}{}$ – Gerry Myerson Oct 7 '19 at 5:36
• @GerryMyerson: Chief Technology Officer, aka the person usually producing the least amount of BS in the C suite. – darij grinberg Oct 7 '19 at 6:22
• I agree that SE can and should do more, but this has already been a big improvement from the last communication. At least they have take personal responsibility, and also promised to reinstate Monica Cecilio. It would be nice if you added a small section summarising what actions SE has taken so that the post can be more balanced. – Toby Mak Oct 7 '19 at 12:07
• @TobyMak: There is less than meets the eye in that regard (at least my eye). In particular I don't see any direct promise to reinstate Monica Cecilio, only to "discuss next steps". – darij grinberg Oct 7 '19 at 13:16
• @darijgrinberg Why should there be a direct promise to reinstate Ms Cecilio? Presumably, she was demodded because our corporate overlords had a problem with her. I think that reinstatement should be on the table, but I also think that the current status quo should be on the table. The problem here is, as far as I can tell, primarily one of process. Let us also acknowledge that we lowly users definitely don't have all of the facts. Even the other moderators seem not to have all of the facts. Let's take a moment to breath before bringing out the pitchforks. – Xander Henderson Oct 7 '19 at 15:47
• @XanderHenderson: I was responding to Toby Mak, whose description did not fit the facts somewhat. And I don't see much of a potential for further information to paint a better picture of SO. – darij grinberg Oct 7 '19 at 16:50
• darijgrinberg: Indeed, I meant to ping @TobyMak, not you. A thousand pardons for the slip of the fingers. – Xander Henderson Oct 7 '19 at 18:55
• It is worth pointing out that this one person is apologizing about lack of process and privacy—not the fireing itself. Given that this person was supposedly involved in every step of the firing and "outreach" after the fact I suspect they are standing behind that. It reads as trying to make a scapegoat for SE but have enough room that nothing of consequence will have to happen. It is annoying that obviously committee writen statements are then posted under single names to obscure blame. Monica can't use that "defense." – user29123 Oct 8 '19 at 12:04
• My understanding of this situation (as limited as it is) is that a group of people did not wish to use pronouns the considered "incorrect" (including singular they), and to avoid breaking the words of the old CoC they would instead use proper names or constructions like "the person in question" and similar. This is what the new CoC is meant to prevent. – Tobias Kildetoft Oct 11 '19 at 3:52
• @TobiasKildetoft: That's my interpretation of it too, but it's sufficiently rubbery that anything that a SO employee might consider an unnatural way of referring to a person is in violation of the CoC. – darij grinberg Oct 11 '19 at 4:37
• As I'm not a native or well educated speaker/reader in english: until now I did not yet really understand what it is all about that pronouns-problem. Is there any place meanwhile which gives textual examples which allow to recognize what is the problem, how it looks in writing communication and how it is/should be resolved? - answering myself a bit later: there are some examples on meta.stackexchange.com – Gottfried Helms Oct 11 '19 at 14:45
• Just noting, I use 'the OP' all the time. – Toby Mak Oct 14 '19 at 8:37
• @TobyMak: Not everyone you may want to refer to is an OP. – darij grinberg Oct 15 '19 at 2:47
• I've had similar thoughts about breaking a subreddit I help manage from reddit because of admin-level idiocy. I've even started coding it up just as an escape hatch should reddit ever finally jump the shark. – Cameron Williams Oct 21 '19 at 16:05

As best I can tell, there's a lot of fear around the pronoun requirements in the new CoC. The rules are vague, and open to interpretation. How can you be sure you're doing the right thing without knowing exactly where the line is drawn?

Well, I would say we have been doing exactly that since the beginning of SE; the rule used to be "Be Nice", without much to elaborate on this. There were some vague examples of how one could be "not nice", but nothing was spelled out mathematically. There was no test that was even close to objective that would determine whether you were nice or not.

Ultimately, the enforcement of the rules were left to the judgement of the moderators. Essentially, if the moderators deemed your behaviour problematic, then you would get a series of warnings, short bans, eventually culminating in longer/wider bans if your behaviour failed to improve after many warnings. While I'm sure the system did not work in every case, it seemed fine.

The pronouns stuff is simply clarifying how to "Be Nice" to a certain group of people, whose reception on the SE network has traditionally been... rocky. At the heart of the CoC, you are required to address people in the way they want to be addressed. For a majority of people, this has never been an issue in their lives, but for this particular minority, this is a big deal.

You don't have to sympathise with them or their issues at all; just address them as they want to be addressed. The onus of being mindful of others' problems is not limited to problems you share (for example, I'm not a parent or a child, but I still try not to endanger children, for both their and their parents' sakes).

Like the rest of the "Be Nice" policy, I expect the moderators to enforce the pronoun policy in the same way: through warnings, short bans, then long bans. Anyone who is earnestly not trying to antagonise the queer community should have many, many opportunities to rectify their behaviour if it's deemed problematic, before any serious punishment comes in.

But, what about Monica? Didn't she get fired, almost instantly, without trying to antagonise the queer community?

Monica's ham-fisted dismissal couldn't have come at a worse time. It is a clear example of the worst fears about pronouns policy come to life.

However, I think it should be treated as a separate issue. Remember, it is not the SE company staff who will be enforcing the pronouns policy; it will be the various moderators. I can see why, in the lead up to releasing the new CoC, they would want to ensure that their senior, paid moderation staff will enforce their CoC properly. After all, these are the people who the moderators will turn to when trying to figure out how to enforce the CoC.

As I've said before, Monica's dismissal was poorly handled, and based on all available information, totally unfair; I'm not trying to excuse SE's behaviour on this point. However, I just don't think it's an indication about how the CoC will be practically enforced over the SE network.

• This is very much of a question how much trust you want to give the SO team. I think every of us has her [incidentally, an example of where the otherwise good "their" pronoun would be actively misleading] own answer to this question. At the time this thread was made, at least for me, the answer was "zero". A nontrivial faction in SO Inc was publicly claiming the majority of their userbase to be bigoted and harmful and was willing to expel it if it did not conform with their worldview. Now ... – darij grinberg Oct 26 '19 at 5:25
• ... we have a new CoC, which is a significant improvement and contains nothing egregiously bad, and the "everyone's a Nazi" faction has gone silent. Changing course or just biding their time? Time will tell. – darij grinberg Oct 26 '19 at 5:28