The Stack Overflow Podcast

From AOL chat rooms to Wikipedia, Reddit, and now, Stack Overflow

Episode Summary

We chat with Philippe Beaudette, our new VP of community, about his experiences building and nurturing great online communities.

Episode Notes

Beaudette cut his teeth in the days of AOL chat rooms, then became an early Wikipedian. More recently he worked at Reddit, where his team of ten professional community managers supported 300 million monthly unique visitors. Before his recent promotion to VP,  Beaudette was on the Trust and Safety team at Stack Overflow. 

For more detail on his experience, check out his LinkedIn here.

Our lifefboat badge of the week goes to Arty-chan for answering the question:What is gitlab instance url, and how can i get it?

Episode Transcription

Philippe Beaudette The thing that I love about this corner of the internet is this altruistic bent of just like giving away what you know. And deep down at the heart, it really is kind of an amazing thing that people do to just spend the time, the hours that they spend curating the websites, whether it's Wikipedia, or Stack Overflow, or Reddit, and really like giving what they know to the world in general.

[intro music]

Ben Popper Cockroach DB is the only bug you'll ever love, because it's the only one you don't have to worry about. As a low touch SQL database that automatically handles scale, operations and uptime, Cockroach DB lets you focus on developing. Get your free cluster and a free t shirt at

BP Hello everybody. Welcome to the Stack Overflow Podcast, a place to talk about all things, software and technology and today all things software, technology and community. I am Ben Popper, Director of Content here at Stack Overflow. And I am joined today by my colleague, Ryan Donovan. Hi, Ryan. 

Ryan Donovan Hey, Ben, how you doing today? 

BP I'm well. So for folks who don't know, Ryan is a great technical writer and editor manages our blog and our newsletter, and we work together closely on the content team. Ryan, Stack Overflow is probably one of the largest online community, certainly the largest in the world of software development. But you know, it's not the only sort of community in it's vain. And actually, it's interesting sometimes when I try to describe what is Stack Overflow to people who aren't familiar with software development, I say, it's like, Wikipedia meets Reddit. It's like you could start a community about anything a Stack Exchange, but they really care about objectivity. So it's not just Reddit where you can just have fun, you know, just posting for the lulz. But it's not Wikipedia, where it's like based on an article it's like centered around certain topics, interests and knowledge communities. So we have a great guest today, Philippe Beaudette, who has joined us on the trust and safety team as part of our overall community organization. And he has some incredible experience across a wide range of some of the biggest communities on the internet. So Philippe, welcome to the show. 

PB Thanks. Thanks for having me today. I appreciate it.

BP Philippe, I also just wanted to say congratulations, you were recently promoted to our new VP of Community. So yeah, big congrats on that.

PB Thank you very much. I appreciate it. It's a, it's quite an opportunity. And I couldn't be more excited about the challenges and the opportunities we see ahead.

BP Yeah, and gives us some great continuity with our podcast, Sara Chipps was my co host for a while she was in that same role. And so yeah, I'm excited to see what you do. There's so many big challenges and big opportunities with a huge online community. And I think there's a lot of potential here. So let's dive into it. So for folks who don't know, just Yeah, tell them real quick who you are, and sort of how you got into this world and a little bit of your CV, so they kind of understand where you're coming from.

PB Sure. It's, you know, it's it's fortuitous that you mentioned Wikipedia and read it because that's two of the places I've worked. I was at Wikipedia for about six and a half years and various roles from heading up the strategy project to being the director of the legal and community advocacy team. So I did a whole lot of stuff there, head of reader relations, all sorts of fun things at the Wikimedia Foundation, which is the nonprofit that supports Wikipedia and its sister projects like Wiki Data, Wiktionary, things like that. I was also Director of Community at Reddit for a while. And I've been doing community work on the internet's for more years than I care to admit, probably about 20 years now, starting with some time I spent at AOL, back when we were still mailing out discs in the mail. So, you know, I, I had enough of those to paper a small room.

BP Yeah, let's take it back there. Because actually, it's interesting. our CTO, CPO, Teresa Dietrich is also an AOL alum. At that point in time, it was one of the biggest online service providers and people needed AOL essentially, like you could get online. But if you wanted to get online with an easy sort of accessible portal on your mail was there and the news was there, if you didn't want to sort of figure it out, and you know, if you if you didn't have the chops to figure it out, AOL was one of the ones that would let you log in all you to do is take their free hours on the CD and then start paying by the hour after that, what kind of communities do they have, how large are they and what what did you do, you know, to sort of help manage those?

PB So I worked on the Community Action Team at AOL, which was responsible primarily for enforcing our Terms of Use. We'd if you were going to start a chat room that existed to cause problems for other people. We were the ones who shut you down. Were the ones that came in and gagged you when you got out of control. And we worked closely with the community guides, who were volunteers, in a certain assuring that AOL stayed a positive and mostly family friendly place. So we also took all the reports that people sent us in and, you know, we really, we did a whole lot of everything, but the largest part of it was sitting there looking at lists of private rooms that people created and deciding whether or not they should or should not exist on our site.

RD Yeah, that early internet felt like kind of a wild west at least, you know, my side of it. I wonder what that looked like at AOL, like was it as wild as it felt outside of AOL?

PB Yes, it really was. And in fact, we were still figuring out at the time, like, how to do internet, you know, how do you internet? So when we began, when we started blocking accounts at AOL, in order to get unblocked, you had to write a letter, snail mail, as you put in the mail and mail to Virginia, and somebody would read it and decide whether you were appropriately apologetic for what happened with your account. And if so we'd reactivate your account. Eventually, that went to an online process. But yeah, I mean, in the beginning, we're still dependent on things like snail mail that manage our processes.

RD Somebody's AOL account is locked, they can't get on the internet. Right? 

PB Exactly. We eventually built some ways around that, where you get access just enough to request to be unblocked. And but you know, I can't tell you how many times we got to explain to somebody what their kid had done on their AOL account, which was always fun. And that they needed to write a hard letter to tell us that they wanted to be back on.

BP I guess, yeah, that was a community that anybody could create within sort of AOL, or some of them may, you know, have gotten to a significant scale. But let's move to sort of the second layer here, which is time at a place like Wikipedia, or Reddit, or Stack Overflow, sort of that that next generation where things reached a new kind of global scale, and became the central source of either community or knowledge in a way that hadn't before I remember reading a New Yorker article, who knows way, way back when about Wikipedia, that was just sort of talking about all the time and effort that had gone in over the millennia to create encyclopedias and libraries. And, you know, all the people on staff at Britannica who, you know, did this, and along comes the internet and community and people are whipping up an encyclopedia that is starting to compete with and now is, you know, sort of the de facto source for truth. So how did you arrive at Wikipedia? And when you did, where was it in that, in its development?

PB So it was kind of the early days of Wikipedia, it wasn't the very earliest, but I would say I was in the second major wave of contributors. And I found it because I was lying at home one day, sitting on my bed board. And I happened to Google for the name of the governor of Oklahoma, just because that's where I lived at the time. And I found it, I found a Wikipedia article on it. And it had this button that said, 'you can edit this'. And I thought, well, that's pretty cool. I want to see how that works. Because at the time, nobody was doing that you couldn't just go edit a page on the on the internet. So I tried it out. And I kind of got a little bit hooked. And then I started to dig into the behind the scenes processes, and realize that there was this whole community of people building this thing. I was I was hooked, I was on Wikipedia, and for the first for the first edit I made. And in the process of that they put out a call for somebody to help with a strategic plan. And I volunteered. And Sue Gardner, who was the executive director at the time, decided that for whatever reason, she wanted to give me a shot at it. So I came in, I spent a year helping Wikipedia write a strategic plan with my friend Eugene Kim, who ran the project as a whole. And we did this in a very wiki way, we threw up a wiki and had everybody come and tell us what they thought the plan should look like. Because let's face it, if you put like 10 guys in a boardroom and had them write a strategic plan for Wikipedia, it would never go, they would never extend it. So I did that. And at the end of that process, they were crazy enough to give me a permanent gig as head of reader relations. And then my whole role there was to represent the voice of the consumers of Wikipedia's content, the readers. That eventually emerged and we did different things. I helped run the fundraiser one year, we raised $16 million in record time, something like that. And eventually, I ended up with a team of folks who were handling basically everything weird. Internally, we referred to my desk is the pile of crazy. And it really was, you never knew what we were gonna see.

RD Do you have a favorite piece of crazy that came across your desk?

PB Oh, man, I have several. I always love the ones where they would send us product reviews, I got pictures of a microwave once from somebody who was telling us how great the microwave was, well, that's awesome but I don't make microwaves. It was not unusual for us to get things about, like collectors guns that people had bought. And they wanted to figure out what the provenance of this gun was. And you know, as much as I may love watching Antiques Roadshow, that that's not what we do, either. And then they would write to us about social issues, the gay penguins in New York City, in Central Park, who were being separated, people were up in arms about it, we for some reason, they felt like it was important to read Wikipedia with that sort of thing. And we read all the mail, you know?

BP You become the central source of truth and knowledge. You know, you're sort of, you're sort of a deity like figure, you know, they're just gonna reach out. 'Hey, can you help us with this?'

RD Yeah. I mean, that just shows the sort of centrality of Wikipedia on the internet. I remember when we first talked you were talking about the whole SOPA thing.

PB Yeah. When back in the day when SOPA was a concern, for those who don't know Stop Online Piracy Act and Protecting the Internet Act. We at Wikipedia and the folks that read it, and the folks at stack got together and decided we were going to work with some other players on the internet and blackouts are major websites for a day. This was a major decision for Wikipedia. We were dealing with engineers who spent their lives making sure that websites stayed on and now all of a sudden we're asking them to block it out and do it on very short notice. And in order to to even see if this is something we want to get involved with, we had to poll the Wikipedia community on this, and then determine what the parameters were. Do we blackout just in the US? Do we go worldwide? So we ran this long conversation that I led, that had 1000s of people giving us input on this. And for several days at a time, all I did was hit refresh on the keyboard, and just see what was new. And it ended up that the Wikipedia community felt very strongly that they did want to protest this that they did want to take part in, they wanted to blackout the sites worldwide. And we did and our fantastic graphics folks put together some amazing graphics around the theme of imagine a world without free knowledge. And the end result was great. We got what we wanted. We were driving people to call their Congressman, and we got a call from the Capitol switchboard. Basically asking us to turn it off, because we were melting the phone lines down. So that was awesome. That was a really great feeling. Then the next day, I picked up the New York Times, and there we are on the front page. And I thought, I have died. We have made it. This is amazing. And it was the day that like the internet flexed its political muscle, and the first time we really got things accomplished. It was fun to be a part of that. Yeah.

BP So you had mentioned that the edit button was kind of what got you into Wikipedia and you know, set you down that path. But one day, you also tried to get a little fancy with the CSS, you want to tell us that story?

PB Yeah, this is the day I made it impossible for a few seconds to edit Wikipedia. I was, I mentioned before I ran the fundraiser one year and I wanted to do something fancy with the the pages with that you could donate on and on one particular page, I wanted to remove all the extraneous interface elements so that your choices were like donate or cancel. That's it. Thinking that you know, the fewer rabbit holes, you had to go down from that page, the more we more likely would get to be converted. I'm not that great at CSS, it turns out, in fact, I'm pretty bad at it. And rather than removing it for just those pages, I took that off the whole site. And that included the edit button. Now the problem was to do this, you had to edit a CSS page. And to undo it, you also had to edit that page. And I just took away the edit button. So for a few seconds until somebody, a great developer named Ryan, remember that you could add a particular text string to the end of the URL, and it would fake the edit button we could go in and we could revert out the history. For a few seconds there, you couldn't edit Wikipedia and you didn't have any interface elements. Because I'm bad at CSS.

RD I guess that's why you managed community and not front end. 

PB This is why I'm not an engineer. Yeah. [Ryan laughs]

BP And so I guess like yeah, from from your perspective, you know, I would love to hear two things. One is sort of like, what are the things you've learned that are true across all these disparate communities? You know, AOL, Wikipedia, Reddit, Stack Overflow? Are there certain things that hold true? You know, obviously, I'm sure there, there's experience you've gained along the way that useful. And then, you know, to what degree are they different, they have either a different sort of kernel or seed that you know, then creates sort of how people behave, or they have, you know, different community as a result of sort of serving different purposes, maybe, you know, having different tools. Do you think that you can reflect on those things and include Stack Overflow, in your time here in that?

PB I bet I can. So one of the things that I love about this corner of the internet that Stack Overflow lives in, and I would replace Reddit and Wikipedia in the same corner of the internet, this broadly, knowledge sharing, user generated content area. In fact, I was telling somebody yesterday, I think if you put together a Venn diagram of the contributors of Stack Overflow, and Reddit and Wikipedia, you'd get a nearly one to one relationship. But the thing that I love about this corner of this, the internet is this altruistic bent of just like giving away what you know. And deep down at the heart, it really is kind of an amazing thing that people do to just spend the time, the hours that they spend curating the websites, whether it's Wikipedia, or Stack Overflow, or Reddit, and really like giving what they know, to the world in general. AOL was a little different, heavily commercial, obviously. But it was a necessary precursor to these sites that we've got today. We had to get people on ramp somehow. But, you know, I think that I've discovered that I love this, this little altruistic corner of the internet. It's a fun place to be. And it's particularly fun to watch the evolution that's happened from when I started till now, but to answer your questions at its core, it's still a beautiful thing to watch people give freely of their time and their knowledge and change these websites. Now, that's not to say that it doesn't have its problems. Obviously, there are people who are trying to create problems for some of us on the trust and safety team where I work since April, we've shut down about 700,000 people trying to create—or 700,000 accounts that were being created to spam. And you know, we didn't we didn't have that problem really on, on AOL is the technology hadn't gotten there yet. But here, that's, you know, that's part of the cost of doing business for us is we're going to have to have folks look for in combat, that sort of thing. Because anywhere you've got people giving something away for free, you're gonna have people trying to disrupt it. And that's, that's my job is to get into the middle of that and try and prevent that from happening.

RD I mean, I think this is sort of a fundamental property of the internet. And people in general, like people are very social, like this. This sort of comes out of the old news groups, and some of the bigger forums where people gathered together, researched, shared.

PB Yeah, I think a lot of our social norms also come out of those, those old news groups as well. And this, this sort of driving underlying concept of being kind to people, being welcoming all that started in those those news groups. When I was at Wikipedia, we compared one point in our history to the eternal September, that was famous in news groups were the day that it stopped feeling like new folks came in in September, they started feeling like they were always coming. And, you know, I think we take a lot of who we are culturally out of those news groups, and what the internet is and represents.

BP And so I guess, you know, one thing that has sort of come across to me is that Stack Overflow hasn't maybe had to deal with some of the challenges that you know, places like Reddit has, in part because it's relatively, you know, apolitical, it's focused, you know, often on objectivity and problem solving, you know, show your work, bring us a code sample. Can you talk a little bit about some of the stuff that you dealt with at Reddit? You know, it's it's fascinating, because not only is it as you said, you know, like building a community and giving to one another online, but now increasingly spilling over into the real world. So I think you mentioned, you know, you're very familiar with Pizza Gate, we'd love to hear about that. Because, you know, increasingly, the epistemic reality of the online community is forming what people's vision and belief in what's really happening. Whether or not that turns out to be true, is another story.

PB Yeah, I mean, it's interesting that, you know, as community managers at Reddit, my team and I, frequently, we're on the cutting edge of some of this meme based culture. And we saw pizza gate coming up pretty early in the process. And I'll admit it, the first time somebody brought me r/pizzagate to look at, I laughed, and I thought, there's no way this is a gate, this is not made it gate status. And I was wrong. And and fairly shortly after that, we had to shut it down. Because it was clear that this is becoming a community that had spiraled out of control and was going to do some real damage, both our reputation as a side but could theoretically hurt people. And as you recall, somebody did end up going into that pizza parlor in Virginia, I believe and shooting the place up.

RD I don't think he shot the place up, I think he walked in with a gun.

PB He walked in with a gun, you're right, he didn't actually shoot the place that you're right. But you know, that's, that's a scary reality. And so we took a lot of time to deliberate before we took any action on it in on any subreddit. And that one, rapidly, we saw, we were coming to a consensus that we had to do something. And finally, after a number of a number of meetings, I was walking down the street in San Francisco on the phone with somebody I just said, let's just shut it down, shut it down. This was kind of a new concept to Reddit in that like we didn't, we didn't really shut down heavily engaged big subreddits. At the time, we've done it on a few fatpeoplehate was a notable one that we'd gone in and shut down. And we took some some flack for that. But it was the right thing to do. Obviously, in retrospect, we absolutely did the right thing with pizzagate. And I almost wish we'd done it a little earlier, because that that thing was spiraling out of control that led to and was was informed by the folks over at the Donald, which later was also shut down. And at the time, we were making decisions about whether we even allowed the Donald to appear on the newsfeed at Reddit. And we eventually said, no, it's not gonna make it there. It's a toxic community,

BP You know, for the for the folks at Stack Overflow, who are part of the community and met in our power users, you know, maybe meeting you for the first time, what do you think, is a good way for our community to interact with, you know, sort of employees, you know, like, how can they bring you their concerns? How can they bring you their ideas, you know, what's a good way for us to facilitate that dialogue to ensure that what we continue building is something that they feel like they're a part of, and that they want to support?

PB Well keep engaging on meta, because that's, that's the place that is, is easiest for us to watch and for us to engage. But, you know, anytime you want to reach out to any of the staff, community managers, we're all happy to talk to you. And, you know, you'll see us most often around things like product launches, for instance, we launched Collective's last week, and you probably saw, if you were watching that at all, you probably saw me working closely with that team. So always feel free to send us a note, to find us wherever you can and give us feedback. We actually love it. We take that feedback, and we use it to inform our conversations with other teams, and we pass along your thoughts always, I guarantee. Anytime somebody takes the time to come to us and tell us about something it's because they feel strongly about it. We're gonna pay attention to that. I can always promise you we're going to do what you say, because we're trying to balance a number of different stakeholders but but we do give it a lot of weight and we take those comments back to the product teams or whomever it is that are building the thing and we make sure that they hear about it. So you know, do keep trying to engage on meta, do you keep trying to reach out to us we really do listen, sometimes I know it can seem like your voice is lost in the crowd. But it's not. We're reading every comment we're doing everything we can to to represent you back to the rest of the company.


BP Alright, well, I'm going to represent the community a little bit here if I can. We do this at the end of every episode, we shout out the winner of a lifeboat badge. Someone who came on and found a question with a score of negative three or less, gave an answer, they got a score of 20 or more. And the question now is a positive three. So awarded 19 hours ago to Arty-Chan. 'What is gitlab instance url, and how can i get it?' Alright, if you want to find out, you can find that in the show notes. I am Ben Popper, the director of content here at Stack Overflow. You can always find me on Twitter @BenPopper, email us And if you liked the show, please do leave a rating and a review. It really helps. I'll popcorn it over to you Ryan, tell the folks who you are where you can be found.

RD Alright, I'm Ryan Donovan. I edit the blog here at Stack Overflow. I'm a ghost on Twitter @RThorDonovan. And you can email me at 

BP Alright. And Philippe, who are you? And if you want to be found on the internet, where should people look you up?

PB You can find me on Wikipedia at user Philippe. I'm on Reddit as AchievementUnlocked. And on StackOverflow just by name. You can find me by email at

BP Alright everybody, thanks for coming on. And yeah, we'll talk to you again soon. 

PB Thanks!

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