As some of you may be aware, a new moderator agreement is due to come into force next month. I have declined that agreement, and so will cease to be a moderator on History:SE when it comes into effect (currently scheduled to be on, or about, 7 September 2020).

It is not that there is anything that I find particularly onerous or burdensome about the new agreement. It's simply that some parts require a level of trust between moderators and SE Inc (particularly paras 4 and 5 of the new agreement). Following last year's events, I feel that SE has forfeited that trust.

You probably all know that, now that History:SE has graduated from beta, there will be elections for a new moderator team at some point (although I understand there is currently something of a backlog due to a shortage of Community Managers). As a result of what happened last year, I had already pretty-much decided that I wasn't going to stand in those elections. The introduction of the new moderator agreement just means that I am standing down rather sooner that I had intended to. This post is intended to explain why I made that decision.

Fortunately, we will still have three great moderators in place, which makes me feel a lot better about stepping down now.

[Edit 4 September 2020: The deadline for accepting the new moderator agreement has been extended, and the new agreement will not now come into effect until 7 October 2020. I will continue to do my job as site moderator as long as I have the diamond, and access to the tools.

It looks like you're not getting rid of me quite yet ;-) .]

I know what SE did last summer

For clarity, this is my take on what happened last year:

  • Leaving aside the question of whether removing Monica Cellio as a moderator was justified, SE were completely within their rights to de-mod her. Despite the fact that Monica was hugely liked and respected by the SE community, the (current) Moderator agreement explicitly says "Stack Exchange Inc. reserves the right to terminate my privileges as a moderator at any time without warning".

  • However, the timing of that removal and the way that it was actually done shows what we used to euphemistically call a 'training deficit', or to put it more bluntly, a level of ineptitude and disregard for Monica's feelings that almost beggars belief.

That said, while all of that made me angry, there was nothing so far that actually made me reconsider my decision to put myself forward to become a pro-tem moderator on History:SE.

  • Then came the infamous interview in The Register. For me, that crossed a line. That they would deliberately defame someone who had worked hard as an unpaid volunteer to make SE sites better, and ensure that the network actually works, made me really angry. In fact, it still does, if I'm being honest. Notwithstanding the fact that they've now come to a legal agreement (and I hope that cost them a fortune!), I've been really thinking hard about whether I wanted to remain as an SE moderator since then. That interview showed what SE:Inc really thinks about the moderators on its sites.

  • Now, I know that in a legal sense (as the current Moderator Agreement makes abundantly clear), "I am an independent volunteer moderator to Stack Overflow and I am not an employee, agent or representative of Stack Exchange Inc". However, as moderators we do represent our communities. And what is Stack Exchange if not the collection of its communities? So, in a very real sense, as moderators, we do represent SE. And I'm simply just not comfortable about that any more.

  • The subsequent sacking of respected Community Managers with little or no notice, and the way that they have handled the re-licensing of user content, really didn't help matters. (And while I have great sympathy for the remaining, badly over-worked, CMs, the fact that they are over-worked is the direct result of a deliberate decision made by the company management)


As for that re-licensing, the SE ToS forms a legal contract (Section 2 of the ToS makes that point explicit). I'm no lawyer, but I'm pretty sure that unilaterally varying the terms of a contract without formal notice to all parties is illegal - even in New York. It would certainly be illegal under UK and/or EU law. I'm also pretty sure that the legal advice to SE will have been something along the lines of: "challenging the change in court would be ruinously expensive, so nobody is going to do it". And they are probably right, particularly if the case has to be brought in the US. (And on top of that, it's no secret that international copyright law is a hot mess anyway!)

My background has included creating elearning materials, as well as producing reports and other content while working as an historical researcher. Copyright and licensing were explicitly covered in pretty-much every contract I've signed over the years. As far as I'm concerned, those licensing rules actually do matter. Now, if I had been asked, I would probably simply have agreed to the change without a second thought. But we weren't asked! Personally, I find that unacceptable, and if I'm being honest, it makes me less-inclined even to contribute to SE sites, never mind moderate one.

Closer to home

In addition, while thinking about the broader SE ecosystem, I realised something important about History:SE itself. We routinely talk about "the History:SE community", but it is clear to me that there are actually multiple communities, who each believe that our site should be something rather different. For myself, I'd like to think that we should be aiming for higher-quality questions and answers. I think we should ideally be a site where non-trivial assertions in questions and answers should always be supported by citations, or those questions and answers should be discarded.

(That being said, however, the fact that "Quality" was conspicuously absent from the KPIs that SE:Inc listed last year didn't go unnoticed!)

It's clear that there are others who think differently from me here on History:SE. There are some who think that even the existing rules are too strict (as evidenced by voting patterns in review queues, amongst other things). One relatively high-rep user actually said in a recent comment on our meta that they thought we should allow "anything except obvious homework questions". While I don't agree with them, I accept that those views are also valid.

My problem is that I'm really not sure that my views represent the majority view any more. And, given all that, I don't think I know how to "represent the community" as a moderator.

Regrets, I have a few ...

My main regret is that I haven't been able to do as much as I had hoped to make the site more supportive towards new users. Unfortunately, every time the subject is raised it seems to devolve into a discussion about whether the wording in our canned responses is 'fluffy' enough. The wording of our standard comments could certainly bear improvement, but I suspect the roots of the problem lie deeper.

I think the real problem is that we just aren't very good at communicating our rules and our expectations to new users. I know that there are many others here who think that new users should just take a little time to look around and see how we do things here. My response is that would be fine, if we were consistent, but we really aren't.

To illustrate my point with a specific example:

Our Help Centre in unambiguous when it states that "Questions answered by a simple Google search or to be found in a Wikipedia page" are explicitly off-topic. Such questions are regularly, and rightly, closed by the community. In most cases, people don't post answers to those questions, beyond pointing out the relevant Wikipedia page in comments. In most cases, but certainly not in all.

For example, the question Were there any monarchs of England or the United Kingdom who were not technically first in the line of succession? is answered by not just one, but two Wikipedia pages. Those pages were pointed out in comments (I posted one of those comments, which is why I am particularly familiar with this example), and the OP of the question replied "Those Wikipedia pages do have the information I need. I had looked at a few Wikipedia Articles about the monarchy, but I didn't come across those ones. Thank you". Unfortunately, they didn't then delete the question.

Half-an-hour later, the first relatively high-rep user posted an answer. That was followed by four more. The question even made it onto the HNQ list!

Now, I'm not trying to single out that question or blame those high-rep users. There are plenty of other examples I could have chosen (some of which have not been closed because some users prefer not to close questions with answers). In any case, that is exactly how the gamification of SE was designed to work. Questions like this, even when off-topic, are the "low-hanging fruit" that help people accumulate reputation and badges more quickly. But the sad reality is that it doesn't help new users understand our rules and expectations.

I've fielded far too many questions along the lines of:

"why was <my off-topic question> closed when <another equally off-topic question> was left open and/or answered".

IMO, it's that kind of experience that makes us seem 'unwelcoming' to new users, rather than the wording of our standard responses. At least those standard comments mean the user now gets some feedback on why their question was closed, which has been a step in the right direction.

My opinion, for whatever it's worth, is that we probably need a comprehensive set of FAQ (perhaps similar to those on Skeptics:SE) which clearly set out our expectations and guidelines. We can then link to those FAQ from our Help Centre and in any standard comments. Unfortunately, in order to establish that, and agree the content of those FAQ, we would probably need some agreed method of establishing consensus, and that seems to be problematic.

I have been unable to square that circle. Maybe others will have more success in the future.

And finally ...

Being a moderator on History:SE can sometimes present rather ... unique ... challenges. I think it's fair to say that our intervention is not always universally welcomed!

I have been fortunate to have been supported by the other moderators here on History:SE, and by the wider SE moderator community, which certainly made the job much easier. It has been a huge privilege for me to help bring this site to graduation, and I hope that my contributions have been (at least mostly) positive, and have helped make the site a better place for everyone.

Well, better for everyone except the Nazi trolls, obviously.

  • 5
    While I completely respect Sempai's decision, I regret to see Sempai go. The site will feel smaller and less secure afterwards. Kampai sempai! – Mark C. Wallace Aug 30 '20 at 14:34
  • 5
    Its gonna hit me pretty hard to see that diamond go from next to sempais' name. Here's hoping SE corporate doesn't chose this one thing to be speedy and competent about. – T.E.D. Aug 30 '20 at 16:08
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    I'll be sorry to see you go, and it's a shame that whatever is going on in SE has led things to come to this. I hope to keep seeing you around despite the corporate shennagians. – Semaphore Aug 30 '20 at 16:32
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    As a member of the community, I feel this is a huge loss for HSE and very sad. You've been a diligent and conscientious moderator, trying to prod this site towards the kind of standards that should set it apart from other Q & A sites. I can't say I've agreed with every decision you've made ('only' 95%, and who's to say I'm right about the other 5%?), but your moderation will be sorely missed. – Lars Bosteen Aug 31 '20 at 1:56
  • 6
    Thank you for everything you have done for this community, It's sad to see you go but certainly understandable and at the very least respectable. A big hat-tip to you Indiana Cousteau! – Tom Sol Aug 31 '20 at 9:38
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    Its nice to see that, once again, my perverse faith in the foibles of humanity has been rewarded. :-) – T.E.D. Sep 2 '20 at 19:17
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    Thank you for all of your contributions! I can't speak for everyone, but I always appreciated your dedication to this site. – called2voyage Sep 10 '20 at 12:20
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    It's a shame to hear this news. I can't say I agree with all the policy views above, but the need to have a policy and a way of forming it is absolutely critical. I think the best possible response to you leaving would be to resolve this. I have some ideas which I will kick into shape in the next few days. – Ne Mo Sep 11 '20 at 14:43
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    I am so sad about sempai's decision, although I totally respect it. I don't pretend to understand the legal/corporate shenanigans - I'm just here for the History - but appreciate sempai's views on them. However, I would add that sempaiscuba has been a superb moderator and will be sorely missed. History:SE's loss! Semper scuba! – TheHonRose Oct 28 '20 at 13:29

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