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    • CommentAuthorquid
    • CommentTimeAug 26th 2011

    From another thread it seems there is interest/need to discuss this. My motivation for creating this thread is merely to provide a neutral thread for such a discussion, as to continue it in the other thread in my opinion focuses the discussion on a particular incident, which I find for various reasons unfortunate.

    • CommentAuthorgilkalai
    • CommentTimeAug 26th 2011
    quid, can you elaborate on what is it that you propose to discuss. (What, in some detail, is "this").
    • CommentAuthorquid
    • CommentTimeAug 26th 2011

    Gil, it is not so much that I would like to propose to discuss something. What I would like to propose is only to transfer the existing discussion (in case it should continue) on potential problems and risks (as well as possible solutions) with communication on MO, in particular those communications involving new users, which just happens in another thread, to this one.

    A reason for this is that if it continues in the other thread, I think it will always be tied to one particular incident (which IMO is unfortunate for various reasons, among them that many people do not and cannot even know the question/comment around which the discussion develops, and it IMO focuses the discussion on a pair of comments of one particular user who IMO mainly had bad luck as the situation itself was somehing happening on MO frequently). Leaving aside the fact that the original purpose of that thread was still something else.

    • CommentAuthorgilkalai
    • CommentTimeAug 26th 2011 edited
    Quid, ok. Since I am not sure I understand what you are referring to, and since we cannot assume another thread as a prerequisite to this one, let me suggest the following:

    This new thread is devoted to discuss communication on MO (and its meta). What should we aim at in terms of blatedness, insults, politeness, off-topicness, bringing examples, aggresiveness, etc. Especially, what should we be careful about in interactions with new users. To the extent it is possible people are requested to be especially polite, thoughtfull, and non-aggresive on this thread.
    • CommentAuthorquid
    • CommentTimeAug 26th 2011

    Gil, thank you, this descrpition is very good. And, sorry for being a bit unclear at first.


    In my opinion, there is one basic rule of thumb:

    Be aware of what you write. Read what you wrote when necessary, especially if you did some editing.

    I don't think MO users have bad intentions, nearly all incidents are due to accidental miscommunication -- the above rule of thumb is a good way to avoid many of these incidents. Remember that written media are very unforgiving, especially those that can't be edited, like MO comments.

    The exchange between gilkalai and quid above is a nice example on how difficult how being aware of what you write can be. I think the daily meta readers were aware that quid's 'this' actually refers to, but the occasional meta readers might still be lost. Even quid's correction only refers to 'something', 'existing discussion', 'other thread', 'particular incident', 'comments of one particular user', and 'that thread' -- all equally unhelpful. I know quid probably thought that there was a good descriptive reference somewhere in there, but there wasn't and that could have been avoided by careful rereading.

    • CommentAuthorgrp
    • CommentTimeAug 26th 2011 edited

    Let me offer a couple of examples for fodder (criticism).

    I made a couple of comments in reaction to this post: .

    The fact that I used the word reaction above should suggest that I could have chosen a better response. If so, how should such a provocative answer be handled?

    The second is a hypothetical, but I can imagine it happening soon, if not already. A person unfortunately is a victim of some form of social abuse (you pick whatever kind you can relate to), and is using MathOverflow to express an interest for the first time. For whatever reason, the first comment comes and says something that could sour that person, in particular it hits a nerve that resonates with that person. What kind of comment could that be, and how can such comments be made neutral or more potent in a positive way?

    Gerhard "Ask Me About System Design" Paseman, 2011.08.26


    @grp: What is deficient about your comments? They strike me as to-the-point, constructive, and gentle.

    As for your hypothetical example, it's paralyzing to try to anticipate the background of everybody you interact with. People sometimes generate first impressions from the most insignificant things (e.g. many people might immediately dislike you if you use the string "these data"). It's hard for me to imagine a concrete specific answer to your question. The comment could be anything. The only thing I can think of to neutralize negative effects is, "be polite, professional, and attentive (whatever these mean for you), and hope that others will jump in to help clear things up if you've been blind to something."

    Of course, there are concrete tricks for tapping into your social intuitions: cues like "would I say this (in a seminar)/(to my mother)?"

    @François: you are of course correct. This is the golden rule of net communication, and we are fortunate that essentially all regular users on MO are mindful of this and make some good faith efforts.

    The discussion in the previous post started out about a very specific incident, and then moved to another one, but what it unearthed, that prompted the current discussion, is the idea that maybe these general guidelines are not quite enough with regards to communicating with new users. I had not given it much thought, since my own early experiences with MO were overall very positive, but by design, MO is a place where new users who intend to stick around often feel the need to prove themselves, which cannot be a very comfortable place to be in. Negative comments at that stage are more discouraging (even when they are perfectly objective and not at all personal attacks).

    So I would just like to encourage the regulars to double check who they are writing a comment to, and to make extra sure that the comment is friendly enough and cannot be misinterpreted when dealing with a newer user.
    Here is my Exhibit A for this discussion: two identical questions, woefully inappropriate for MO, asked 8 hours apart, presumably by the same person (though 2 different user accounts). and .
    In the earlier question, Yemon left a very terse message (essentially, read the FAQ). Not only is this a bit dismissive, but it probably led to confusion, hence the second iteration of the question, which is rigorously identical to the first in the math portion.

    Could that person really think that prefacing their question with "Can someone give an elegant proof to the question following." would make it appropriate? It's hard to say for sure, but if we don't really bother to explain why questions are closed, confusions like this are bound to happen. By the way, quid's comment on the closing of the second version of the question is exemplary: clear, to the point yet with enough details.

    @thierryzell: That's a beautiful exhibit. It's really hard to produce tailored explanations every time, especially when the question is argumentative (like this one). Is there something we can do other than put all our best explanations in the FAQ and then link to them? I can easily expose/generate some more anchors so that it's easier to link to a specific part of the FAQ. Of course, tailored explanations will always be better, so we should leave them whenever possible.

    • CommentAuthorMariano
    • CommentTimeAug 27th 2011

    We should compile a list of variations of nicely-phrased texts to use in comments, for us to copy and paste. Writing them each time is... annoying.

    I do not agree with Thierry, though, in that Yemon's comment linked to in his answer is at all dismissive. Refering to a standard explanation is not dismissive.

    • CommentAuthorYemon Choi
    • CommentTimeAug 27th 2011

    While on reflection my comment was a bit too abrupt, I would like to point out that the question had been closed as "off topic" before I left my comment. My aim was to leave the user "some" message as mitigation.

    I agree that quid's response to the 2nd iteration is very nicely worded, in the original sense of that adverb. Would that we all had such lucidity whenever we commented.

    Mariano: when you just ask users to read the FAQ, they might not always figure out *which* part of the FAQ applies to their answer; this was my only problem with Yemon's answer. Especially when a new user's question makes it obvious that they missed the point of MO, I'm not sure that directing them to the FAQ will solve anything. (After all, new visitors are strongly urged to visit the FAQ, so anyone who posts a bad question either didn't understand the FAQ or couldn't be bothered to read the FAQ; either way, directing them there won't help all that much.)

    Yemon: when I started out on MO, I toyed with the idea of keeping "stock comments" saved to copy and paste in appropriate situations. I never got around to it because I didn't want to sound too canned, and I never reached the point when I was typing in too many times the same type of comments, but I might look into this again. And I am glad that you left a comment: any comment is better than closing without explanation.

    We should compile a list of variations of nicely-phrased texts to use in comments, for us to copy and paste. Writing them each time is... annoying.

    This is what we have on TeX-SX: text building blocks. It works well, I think.


    Here is a good example of a nice comment by Joel Hamkins. If this sort of thing catches on, we are in danger of losing our elitist reputation ;-)

    • CommentAuthorsimoncfr
    • CommentTimeAug 28th 2011
    @DavidRoberts: I think that is also a particularly good example of the fact that it is not made clear enough to new users what the purpose of this site is.
    • CommentAuthorMariano
    • CommentTimeAug 30th 2011 edited

    I loved Georges' comment here

    «You are requesting help from (among others) some of the best mathematicians on earth, at least four Fields medalists, and from mature people many of whom are middle-aged or more» is surely going to cause the effect of seeing Michelangelo's David for the first time :)