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    The other structural thing, but this would be a major change, would be to have upvoting/downvoting on comments and have this affect reputation. If people could loose a fair amount of rep for dismissive (but not blatantly offensive) comments, then you might get less of them. I think such comments can discourage people.

    There are reasons why the comment system is the way it is but I definitely think there is room for improvement. I'm glad you brought this up and I would love to hear more opinions about this.

    Currently, comments can only be upvoted and this has no impact on reputation at all. One of the reasons for this is to de-emphasize comments. The other is that comments are sorted chronologically and not by votes, except for the selection of comments that appear in the unexpanded view.

    Another issue with comments is the much smaller font size used, which may be problematic for some users. I haven't heard complaints, but I do remember a big mayhem because someone misread one letter in one of my comments.

    • CommentAuthorbsteinberg
    • CommentTimeDec 12th 2012 edited

    I did say it would be a big change and I am not 100% sure I even support it but I thought it was a good idea to bring out the fact that comments are in some sense cheap and therefore too easy to make. You may remember a long time back I had made a comment that a question about an exercise in Thurston's book would have generated less votes to close/comments if the questioner's background and motivation was presented and the questioner, a new user, suggested my comment was made because her username was a woman's name. This was not my intent and I had previously made similar comments on male users questions. Now I have learned the hard way that comments can be construed in very negative ways by the OP regardless of the intent and they are best used with care. I suspect comments have the most power to lead to misunderstandings and a sense of bias of any structural component on MO.
    • CommentAuthorNilima
    • CommentTimeDec 12th 2012
    Will Jagy pointed me to this interesting discussion. I think it's an important one to have.

    I honestly believe the broad membership of MO doesn't have any particular axes to grind, or none that one is conscious of. This makes it challenging to suggest structural changes.

    There are two specific reasons I don't participate except as a passive reader on MO. Neither warrants (or suggests) a structural change.

    I personally don't bother posting questions to MO, because the forum doesn't have enough of a critical mass of people working in numerical analysis/scientific computing to get expert answers quickly. This means any question I post would need to have a more detailed background/explanation of technical terms than is efficient for me. In some sense I've contributed to the 'tragedy of the commons' by not participating. The comp sci stack exchange is a better forum for me.

    I'm somewhat old-fashioned and am not comfortable with what to me seems aggressive/unprofessional behaviour. The Internet has its own norms and many MO users are comfortable with these. I'm not. I dislike the dismissiveness and troll-like behaviour which occasionally surfaces on MO and this forum.

    A specific episode involving a post by Doron Zeilberger (see for a gory history) proved a bit much for my taste.

    The moderators do a heroic job, and most of the users are courteous. But some are not. Even though I dislike their commentary, they have a perfect right to it. I cannot advocate a structural change to limit discourse I don't like. Instead, I have simply wandered off to a forum which was more welcoming, both scientifically and culturally, for me.

    This post is already very long, for which I apologize! Again, my best wishes to the site, I think it is a valuable resource.
    If the join of say and MO happens than there will be more user on MO who are in applied math. However I would think that since was created, people find this is not a good solution. Why ?

    Nilima already pointed out one reason - "aggressive/unprofessional behaviour".

    But I do not think this is the only (main) reason.

    I just browesed 10 questions on top of I would say that 8 will be welcomed on MO, but

    These two would probably be immediately closed on MO.

    And this problem seems to be unsoluable. It is the same that I would think that join of MSE and MO is not good, since
    there are just toooooooooo many questions on MSE I would not be able to find MO-quality level questions in such a joined site at least it would not be easy.

    "I know countless examples (like the one quid linked to above) where questions were closed by people outside the area because it somehow hit their radar as being below the level of the site."
    Is it really many such questions ? My feeling that it is like exceptions...
    If MO really does have this bias, then it's the wrong place for this discussion.

    Dear testcomment: as long as you are testing, please check that the "edit" link next to your post works, and expand your clever comment into something that is better developed and constructive. At the moment, your intentions are not completely clear. For example, are you suggesting that we should choose a population that does not participate in MO, and have them conduct this discussion instead?

    • CommentAuthorHarry Gindi
    • CommentTimeDec 14th 2012 edited

    I stand by my position in the earlier arguments, albeit not their (sometimes) unfortunate choice language.

    That is, I see all of these ideas as solutions in search of a problem. We've seen rep-hiding suggestions to practically every single perceived problem on MO.

    Also, the idea that a little friendly competition (through rep scores) would make women feel uncomfortable sounds patronizing in extremis, but what do I know.


    Izabella Laba posted a follow-up post on her blog.

    • CommentAuthorfedja
    • CommentTimeDec 16th 2012
    Well, since we are discussing the "field bias" and, as an analyst, I'm assumed to be a victim here, I'll comment a bit on it.

    First of all, what partly amuses and partly irritates me is an occasional outright lack of elementary analytic education in question posters and voters to close alike. The posters can still be excused because, after all, the whole point of asking a question is to discuss something you don't know, but a short comment with a totally wrong answer followed by the suggestion to close the question as too elementary can look REALLY strange.

    Second, the fact that the only real answer to any of my mathematical questions that I could accept with satisfaction was given by myself can hardly improve my general opinion of the usefulness of MO as a research tool for me.

    Can any of these two problems be solved by tweaking with the software? I doubt that very much. Will people change their behavior and will I get all my questions answered in the near future? Sorry, but I doubt that very much too.

    Why am I still here then? Well, what I derive my satisfaction from is my ability to help other people out occasionally, from trying to solve some unusual problems I normally do not deal with in my professional life, and from some metamathematical discussions. I do not think any of those will go away soon, so I'm hooked pretty well for now. Do I feel uncomfortable on MO? Certainly not. If anything, I feel too comfortable here. What I usually do is just to completely ignore all that algebraic geometry and category theory stuff and look at the rest, which is more than enough to keep me busy during my free time. Would I like to see more analysts on MO? Yes, but there is absolutely nothing you can do with the software, reputation points, etc. to attract them like there was absolutely nothing you could do with such things to attract me in the first place. It is the content of the site and the general atmosphere plus my personal attitudes and preferences that matter for my decision whether to enter or not and whether to stay or not, and no single person, be he a moderator, a system administrator, or a user can change them.

    Of course, there are things the admins can do to improve my experience on MO. The first one is to make LaTeX fully compatible with the markup features of the site and to introduce something for drawing pictures (if they don't know how or what, let them look at AoPS, where these problems had been solved to everyone's satisfaction long ago). The second one is to disable that infamous captcha for users with sufficiently high reputation. There are some other technical matters as well, but they are less irritating so they can wait.

    The only people who can correct the "underrepresentation" of analysts on MO are analysts themselves and they can do it not by telling horror stories like how terrible it is that nobody in their field is here, or how topologists and algebraic geometers dismiss analysis questions as not suitable for the site, or how the typical number of points for a good answer to an analysis question is far below that for a question about categorification of something, but by entering one at a time and starting doing some real work here. I'm happy to be able to say these words from the "victim side" because when I say them from the "offending" or the "neutral" sides, they are never really heard.
    I think the subproblem of people closing questions as too elementary they do not actually understand can be met somehow and reduce the bias towards "areas with lingo that sounds sophisticated". In the Stackexchange 2.0 system, you get an actual description of the closing categories. So one can have a category "too elementary" and a description that says one should only use it if one can easily answer the question oneself completely.
    • CommentAuthorWill Jagy
    • CommentTimeDec 17th 2012
    fedja, I had a short email exchange with Francois after my long post. The relevant part would be that Francois and Anton are considering various kinds of outreach. As silly as that always sounds, it is in a helpful direction. You have described very well the circle of under-representation within MO, few askers means little for experts to answer means fewer experts mean fewer asking, something like that. Change entirely from within has real limitations in this case.

    Also, you make a very cute victim. We could have an MO picture calendar.

    I don't visit meta very often but this is an interesting thread.

    I see that on her blog, Izabella Laba says that "there are actually things that site owners and moderators can do to make the site more attractive." What are these things? I didn't see specific suggestions but I read only one blog post and its associated comments. Perhaps she can be persuaded to give specific suggestions even if she does not want to participate on MO.

    The list of subject areas by popularity on MO seems to correlate fairly well (though not perfectly) with the list given by Joseph Grcar in his December 2010 Notices article on "Topical bias in generalist mathematical journals." To the extent that there is a correlation, it suggests to me that much of the subject-matter bias on MO is not a function of MO structure per se, but more of a reflection of pre-existing biases in the mathematical community.

    One question that I have not seen explicitly addressed is, given that there is subject-matter bias on MO, why does that bias need to be altered? I don't see the practitioners in the fields that are less represented on MO saying that they want MO to serve their sub-community better. For example, it's conceivable to me that those other fields have a better mechanism than MO to address the needs that MO is trying to address, and that MO's "bias" gives just the right amount of help to certain fields so that there is now perfect balance across all subfields of mathematics, once all mechanisms are taken into account. While I don't actually believe that there is perfect balance, I say this to illustrate the point that I'd like to see more evidence that the existing bias ought to be changed.


    The example she gave is of Google+ compared to Flickr. This gives you the option to shut people out, and invite people in. So if enough people shut one individual out, they're effectively ostracized from the community. This is a little more extreme than what MO does with its reputation system and a little more personal, it would require people to make judgements on whether or not to shun an individual or to give them more access to the community. I suspect most people would consider this prohibitive to passive participation on MO.

    Concerning the situation of question getting closed by people who are not neccesarily specialists on the field: could Stackechange 2.0 identify which high reputation users are active in which field and only give these the right to vote to close in that area?

    I really don't like that idea, Michael, because it sounds like that judgment would be highly publication-dependent. It is quite possible for users to have acquired some level of expertise or good judgment in an area where they haven't published at all. (I'm also not sure how that would work for those who are active but prefer to remain anonymous, such as our friend quid.)

    • CommentAuthorMariano
    • CommentTimeDec 20th 2012

    Micheal might mean «active on MO in that field» as opposed to «with more than two MathSciNet pages» :-)

    • CommentAuthorEmil J
    • CommentTimeDec 20th 2012
    I also understood Michael to mean “active on MO in that field”. This can be tracked by the software easily enough using tags of questions and answers posted by the user, as can be seen already on current MO user pages, but I have no idea whether SE 2.0 supports restricting rights based on this information. In any case, I think this is not such a good idea. For one thing, it might mean there are not enough high rep users in less popular fields to do this kind of administration.
    Yes I meant what Mariano said. I admit that I haven't thought about all the implications of such a rule and the details of implementing it. Concerning Emil's last comment: I suppose in the early days of MO there was a similar situation, so it would just be a matter of time for enough high rep users to accumulate in an area.

    Emil identified the key problem with this idea. As in the early days of MO, moderators would have to actively moderate questions from less popular fields until a critical mass of users in that field make their way to 3000 points. Given the number of distinguishable fields, that process would last forever and would be severely taxing on the moderators. As it stands, it's not a realistic proposal.

    I agree that if we use the 32 categories here it might be aninfinte process, but maybe we could group some of these categories together to have roughly 5-10 areas in the beginning, and maybe there are already enough experts in each area. But I don't want to insist on the idea. Just wanted to make a suggestion.

    @Ryan: I'm not sure that Laba meant to suggest that MO emulate the specific features of Google+ mentioned in the page she linked to. As I understood her comment she was using that page simply to demonstrate that, in her words, "there are actually things that site owners and moderators can do to make [a] site more attractive" to a particular audience, not necessarily to suggest specific things that should be done here.

    • CommentAuthorgilkalai
    • CommentTimeDec 20th 2012
    I dont think that structural changes in MO are needed or will make a large difference, and, in particular, I dont regard the closing policy as important in the context of our discussion about bias. When it comes to new areas we saw that sometimes the enterance of a single person can make a large change. (The newer versions of stackexchane have a slight advantage in showing most reputable users in a short time-window which allow new users to be more visible.)