The Secret Sauce of Online Communities

5 min readDec 4, 2018

Did you know that we have a site on Stack Exchange for cooking? It is called Seasoned Advice and it has convinced me to add salt to pasta water, helped me peel garlic way easier, and explained the mystery of why applesauce is a valid substitute for oil in baking.

Despite Stack Overflow being known as a site for programmers and programming knowledge, Seasoned Advice has a healthy community. With over 20,000 questions and over 47,000 users, while no where near the millions that visit Stack Overflow, it’s squarely in the middle of the pack based on traffic of the 170+ sites that make up Stack Exchange.

I always thought a better name for the site would be Secret Sauce. It’s a good enough name and also a subtle jab at the use of the phrase as a corporate buzzword. What was once used to describe the yummy flavor spread on your burger is now the key marketing differentiator on PowerPoint decks.

Finally getting saucy on this blog…

The phrase “secret sauce” is a bit cringe worthy. That being said, I do think it aptly describes the key ingredient that makes Stack Overflow’s different pieces come together. That is not to discount the slick UX engineering, the gamification, the zippiness of the site, the incredible repository of content, or the huge influence of Joel and Jeff early on. However, none of those things alone or in tandem had as much lasting impact as this one thing.

That thing is their community moderators. Those are the 600+ volunteers across the various Stack Exchange sites with the little diamond icon next to their names. These are people that have been key contributors over time and earned the right through building up their reputation and earning privileges.

Becoming a moderator is a huge honor and responsibility that power users take on with great respect and dedication. Particularly on the more heavily trafficked sites, there are a lot of questions, answers, and comments that need to be monitored. And there are times when the role can be quite thankless, especially when users get upset with moderators that edit or close their questions.

Without moderators, it is doubtful Stack Overflow would be the site that it is today. Moderators are the exception handlers monitoring flagged content to ensure that question quality is strong, comments remain civil, and answers stay on topic. All of this rigor has allowed Stack Overflow to become a trusted source for programming knowledge where each question can help many thousands of other users save significant amount of time and toil.

I was thinking recently about how enterprises moderate their own internal communities. What lessons can be learned from how Stack Overflow moderates their communities to help companies build their own thriving internal communities? The secret is in how Stack Overflow manages and supports their moderators.

A recent blog post by Tim Post, Director of Community Strategy at Stack Overflow. helped shed some light on moderator strategies. Expanding on Jeff Atwood’s original “Theory of Moderation” post, I share verbatim what he wrote regarding how they support their moderators:

Trust. Support. Agency. Accountability. Autonomy.

  • Trust people. Nothing else works if you don’t have trust. You can’t grant autonomy if you don’t trust folks, and they won’t be accountable if they don’t trust you.
  • Supporting people should be your default reaction. This is essential to maintaining trust. We haven’t always held this ideal as highly as we should, but we’re focused on doing a better job going forward. Sometimes supporting people means teaching them what they didn’t see, or how they could have explained their position better. What matters is, when you show up, their default reaction is phew, things just got better.
  • Give people as much agency as you can. The people closest to the issues tend to be the ones that are best suited to make the best decisions.
  • Require accountability as a tool for success. When you think of accountability, you might think of blame, and that means you’re probably a victim of bad management. Positive accountability means you’ve created a space where trust, support and agency run freely and people understand what’s their role is, and what success looks like. This means teaching people to learn to embrace mistakes as an opportunity for growth and improvement.
  • Autonomy is critical to a sense of ownership. Folks need high-level direction in order to thrive, but even more essential is the space to interpret goals and distill them out into a strategy that they can act on in their own very unique circumstances. Some people need more help than others, but not getting in someone’s way while serving as a guard rail and a mentor can be really, really hard.

I think this framework could apply in practically any role or industry. It comes down to building trust and safety and space to make the best possible decisions. Admittedly this is not always easy to instill if the organization’s culture is not oriented towards trust. But this is an absolute necessity for building strong, vibrant, and long lasting communities.

Moderators are the linchpin in creating that trust. That is as long as the moderators are trusted to make the best decisions. They are the ones that have the power to set expectations on content and behaviors and acceptable use. But for all that moderators do for the community, they themselves are not the actual secret sauce!

The real strength of Stack Overflow is that moderators are involved as little as possible. Moderators, like referees in sports, are meant to be invisible and only take action when necessary, for example when users set flags to alert moderators of questionable content or extreme voting patterns arise.

Moderators rarely initiate action. That is the role of users of the site who will engage with others in the community to maintain community norms. Trust therefore rests in the users themselves to contribute, edit, comment, vote, and monitor the content as they see fit. This is why moderators only spend a small portion of their day at most moderating Stack Overflow. You could even say it is the community that does the actual work.

Trust the users, trust the moderators to take a light approach, and the result will be a community that builds a virtuous cycle of positive and meaningful collaboration. That’s the real secret sauce.

Are there online or offline communities in your organization that you find successful? What are the biggest factors in building healthy communities?

How do I know how reusable my methods should be?

When an answer starts “It’s turtles all the way down”, it’s a good read…

We help IT leaders in enterprises solve the cultural challenges involved in digital transformation and move towards a community based culture that delivers innovation and customer value faster. Learn more about our work here.




Thoughts on developers, digital transformation, startups, community building & engineering culture. Author is Mark Birch @ AWS 👉