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    Would MO be better off without the silly badge system?


    To coin a phrase:

    If you find the perfect maths website, don't spoil it by posting there.

    Personally, I find all these "strategies" to avoid some piece of the software that someone doesn't like at best rather silly and at worst highly irritating (as the strategy employed can mean that it's harder for me to use the site in some way).

    Kowalski says:

    But for me, mathematics is a serious matter — like games are to a child.

    To coin another phrase:

    When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a mathematician I realised what "childish" really meant.

    Of course, I'm being childish myself here and I hope I haven't offended anyone! However, given that there is absolutely nothing we can do about the badges or the publicly visible reputation, why not simply accept the site as it is - warts and all - and get on with the mathematics instead of continually saying, "Wouldn't it be great if ..." or "Why do we have this feature?". I think I've said this before but I'll say it again: I actually like the fact that the software is frozen! It means that we can concentrate on more important things than continually tweaking it to try to make it "perfect".

    • CommentAuthorStorkle
    • CommentTimeFeb 1st 2011

    Andrew: Do you really hope you haven't offended anyone? Because it looks like you were trying to offend a specific one.


    Or to coin yet another phrase on the same topic:

    Als das Kind Kind war,

    spielte es mit Begeisterung

    und jetzt, so ganz bei der Sache wie damals, nur noch,

    wenn diese Sache seine Arbeit ist.

    • CommentAuthorHJRW
    • CommentTimeFeb 1st 2011

    An unusually good effort from Google translate:

    When the child was a child

    played it with enthusiasm

    and now, has just as much excitement as then, but only,

    when it concerns its work.


    I think the badges are pretty silly too. And so do many other people: recently I met a certain mathematician for the first time and found that my MO reputation (in the conventional sense, not 29,7xy) preceded me. This was -- as it is in general -- a positive experience for me. But she also made a good-natured crack along the lines of "I heard you won a platinum badge or something..." Point taken: yep, the badges sure are pretty silly.

    I confess though that I find "I find the badge system pretty silly" to be a pretty silly reason not to participate in a site that you admit that you otherwise enjoy, value and follow. If there were some other site almost exactly like MO except without badges and with a more genteel approach to reputation -- sure, use that site instead. But there isn't. MO is the best site of its kind that we have right now, and is much better than any previous site of its kind. Get over the badges. They don't interfere with the asking, answering and commenting on math questions in any way.


    My impression is that the badge system is emblematic of something E.K. feels which prevents him joining in -- note that he is at pains to say he finds the site interesting reading -- rather than the reason for him not joining in. (Hope that makes sense)


    It's easy enough to hide badge counts or reputations via css if you personally don't want to see them, but I think avoiding them like that is sillier than the badges and reputation. Also, for all the silly aspects of badges and reputation, they do serve some very worthwhile purposes.

    In my mind, the main function of reputation is (as Mark Meckes said) to make MO effectively self-moderating. The main function of badges is to lure people into making use of the full functionality of the software. A large chunk of the badges are (completely nominal) rewards for actually exercising the responsibilities that come with reputation, like voting, editing, retagging, and commenting.

    Of course, badges and reputation are also kinda fun. For all their silliness, I think they do a good job of making MO slightly more engaging for lots of good mathematicians. It is a shame that there are excellent mathematicians who feel that the silliness badges and reputation effectively prevent them from using MO. There are also excellent mathematicians who feel that trying to do mathematics over the internet is silly and they wouldn't be caught dead doing it. It will never be the case that every mathematician wants to use MO. Instead of shooting for that impossible goal, I think we should just try to make it as awesome as possible for those that do choose to participate.

    • CommentAuthorStorkle
    • CommentTimeFeb 2nd 2011

    @Pete: Actually, it's not just the badges that I find silly. The reputation system in general is quite ridiculous and makes me feel a little dirty. It's true that MO is the only site of its kind right now, but that doesn't necessarily mean one shouldn't hedge bets by waiting to see if something more ethical comes along. I do that by not endorsing MO by participating with my real name. I'm not the only one who does this, and some people just don't use it at all. When/if a question/answer site comes along (it will probably not be thanks to the SE people) that's better, I'll stop using MO entirely. I only hope that MO doesn't have too much momentum at that point.

    @Anton Geraschenko: I can confirm that the idea of learning what one can/could do via the descriptions of badges worked for me.

    More generally, it is my impression that the practical aspects of the reputation system and related things are underappriciated by some that argue against them.

    Finally, I find it curious that the status aspect (not sure this is a good word to convey what I mean) of the reputation system is such an issue.

    I am extremely confused by what the "ethical" implications of the reputation system could possibly be.

    What Qiaochu Yuan said.
    My opinion is that the badge system is good. It gives (silly but important) incentive to write good answers to Community Wiki questions, where no reputation is to be gained. It also augments the reputation system, by making it feel like an achievement to get, say, 10 votes on an answer.
    It's like a computer game: the score is "silly", and yet, we play to get a high score.
    • CommentAuthorStorkle
    • CommentTimeFeb 2nd 2011

    Gerry, Qiaochu: Perhaps "more ethical" was poor choice of words. Certainly whatever ethical considerations exist they are not very serious. I would prefer a system in which users did not accrue prominently displayed, one-dimensional "reputation" over time.

    • CommentAuthorWillieWong
    • CommentTimeFeb 2nd 2011 edited

    What Gerry Myerson said. [Oops, looks like Storkle beat me, temporally, at my attempt in being witty.]

    The reputation system, beyond the "practical part" of presenting a barrier to entry so that the site can be self-moderating and not easily taken over and veering off into oblivion, really is only as a big deal as one wants to make it. I suspect that to have a strong opinion on the reputation/badge systems, one must be taking the system "seriously" on some level.

    • CommentAuthorStorkle
    • CommentTimeFeb 2nd 2011

    Willie Wong: What Storkle said.


    +1 Willie. It is fairly easy to just ignore the reputation system; it's an idea that was very much not tailored to mathematical culture, so you don't have to pay attention to it. I don't see why that's worth denying other MO users of the potential benefits of your participation. It is very easy to contribute answers and the software is designed to maximize the impact of doing this (not only do you answer the OP's question, but questions get high PageRank, so anyone who Googles a similar question in the future will find your answer and be enlightened). In fact, I would argue that any "ethical" concerns you might have about specific details of MO are greatly outweighed by the enormous good that a helpful answer can do.

    For example, I am incredibly grateful that Thurston has chosen to take the time to contribute answers to MO. His answers are unusually detailed and offer highly enlightening perspectives on various subjects. In fact, they are changing the way I approach mathematics.

    • CommentAuthorStorkle
    • CommentTimeFeb 2nd 2011

    Qiaochu, Wille: OK, I get it now! I have to admit it is funny the way you continue to emphasize my use of the word "ethical" after I admitted it was the wrong choice of word.

    • CommentAuthoran_mo_user
    • CommentTimeFeb 2nd 2011 edited
    @Storkle and people wih a similar sentiment: To a certain extent I believe to understand where you are coming from. And, on a more general level I tend to share your point of view (as I understand it). For example, I quite disklike the spirit of mathematical competitions (math olympiad and so on).

    Yet, for me this reasoning hardly applies to the reputation system. To me it is above all a measure how long and/or how intensely somebody has participated (in a reqsonable way), and thus how much experience with the site/the community somebody has. Not more, and not less.

    To be more precise: While I think it naturally can have some effect on the rep-points of a person whether or not s/he has a lot of mathmatical knowledge and/or experience to share, there are so many other factors that play a role that to consider the mere rep-points count as anything else than a rough measure of experience *on MathOverflow* seems surprising.

    To offer one example: One also gains reputation from upvotes on questions one asks (even at the same rate as for answers; I hope I am not wrong with this, sofar I never asked a question on MO). Which to me is a clear documentation of the fact that rep-points are meant as a measure of (reasonable) involvement on the site, as opposed to some documentation of the knowledge of a person or whatever.

    And, I see the votes simply as some compact form of feedback of the form 'read that, and liked it/found it interesting/agreed' depending on context, which also could be given by comments (but to always leave a comment instead of a vote would be simply impractical).

    Seeing it like this, I find that the reputation system has a considerable practical value (in several regards), and hardly any drawback.

    ADDED: I wrote this before the last couple comments; if I had seen them I might not have written it (as the main point seems already resolved). Now that it is already written, I thought I might as well leave it.
    • CommentAuthorStorkle
    • CommentTimeFeb 2nd 2011

    an_mo_user: Thank you for your thoughtful post. I actually think math competitions are great fun, but I wish that the sportive side of mathematics were not so dominant on what is now the premier website for interaction between professionals.

    I am aware of (and appreciate) the practical purpose served by "reputation". I agree that it is not that hard to ignore. But names matter: experienced users often feel the need to reinterpret it as something else, point out the possibility of ignoring it, and insist that it is not significant and that others are taking it too seriously (I will give them the benfit of the doubt by assuming that they would be just as happy if reputation were capped at 10,000). I also believe that many of these problems would disappear if the statistic were named "Participation" and not displayed so prominently.

    As I thought I had made clear, I do participate on the main site anonymously. But I continue to hope that a better site will come along.

    @Storkle: yes, I understood you were participating anonymously. Since I did not mention it in my main post: I am an anonymous user with a low reputation.
    • CommentAuthorWillieWong
    • CommentTimeFeb 2nd 2011 edited

    @Storkle: by way of clarification, my post which appeared after yours clarifying your use of the word "ethical" was composed around the same time as your post, and I know for a fact that when I started writing you hadn't responded. I only just noticed that response after admittedly being quite puzzled at your direct address to me a few posts above. So please don't take it as an "after-the-fact piling on" about an unfortunate word-choice.

    • CommentAuthorStorkle
    • CommentTimeFeb 2nd 2011 edited

    WillieWong: Thanks for making that clear; I probably should have thought harder about the timing before getting snippety with you.

    Storkle, you're free to build a better site. There's already something of an on-going effort that I suspect you'd be welcome to contribute to:

    This may sound like a snippy question, but it is asked in seriousness.

    Yet, for me this reasoning hardly applies to the reputation system. To me it is above all a measure how long and/or how intensely somebody has participated (in a reqsonable way), and thus how much experience with the site/the community somebody has. Not more, and not less.

    Would there be as many discussions about how inappropriate the reputation system is if the name was not "reputation," but something with less significance such as "points"?

    @Tyler Lawson: I can well imagine that if it were called something more neutral like "points" or maybe something in the middle like "experience" there would be less discussions on it. As far as I understood, Storkle's "names matter" was precisely targeted at the fact that the quantity is called "reputation". And, I agree that the name "reputation" rather points towards a different direction of interpretation of the value, then the one I have of it (as explained above).

    Thinking about the entire subject a bit I found one point where the community seems to assign a certain seriousness to the reputation points, namely when it is explained that a question should be community wiki if no reputation should be gained from answering it.
    (Yes, probably, one should not get hundreds of reputation points for supplying urban legends, jokes, puzzles, or quotes; however, if one should want to take away from the perception of seriousnes of the reputation points one could think about changing this; were by 'this' I do not mean the practice itself, but rather the explanation. For example a sentence in th FAQ like 'A typical case is requests for references where it is the reference that is being judged by the voting system rather than the person who supplied it.' can well be interpreted that typically a vote 'judges the person' giving an answer. I assume this is not meant like this, but it could be missunderstood; also I know or at least can imagine that it is hard to write a document like this without room for misconception (it is in no way my intention to criticize the person who wrote this).

    I hope it is not perceived as strange that I, as a non-regular user, comment so much on this. But, somehow I started to follow this discussion, and then perhaps to have an opinion of a non-regular user could also be of some interest.
    (Also, as said, personnaly I have no problem with the system as it is.)

    Given the abundance of things that one can buy with one's MO reputation, perhaps we should just rename it "MO Moolah". =)

    A lot of people on MO are competitive, and the reputation system (despite its many imperfections) encourages them to participate. I do agree that the "community wiki" label is underused.

    However, the competitiveness seems to be pretty friendly and low-key on the whole. Although I don't really like this point system either, it's a little hard to take "reputation" too seriously when some Fields Medalists have markedly less reputation than some young undergraduate and graduate students. (And besides, some people rack up a lot of points just by talking a lot.)

    I like "moolah". :-)



    Although I don't really like this point system either, it's a little hard to take "reputation" too seriously when some Fields Medalists have markedly less reputation than some young undergraduate and graduate students.

    What? You mean I'm not the second best mathematician in the entire world?? Now you tell me...


    Uh-oh, me and my big mouth ;-)

    If you wanted to change the name to something more neutral you could call the reputation points "karma" (inspired by reddit). This has more positive connotations like points given out as rewards for contributing to the community in a constructive way.

    Moreover I think it is unfortunate that the name chosen for the number of points you have on MO makes it sound like it is a measure of your worth as a mathematician. For instance, even in this thread where nearly everyone says that they do not care about reputation, Todd points out that some undergraduates have more points than some Fields medalists, as if this were surprising. But of course an undergraduate that asks and answers more questions than a Fields medalists will acquire more points, there is nothing strange about this! The only thing that makes this surprising is the fact that the name suggests that points should correspond to mathematical ability.

    On an irrelevant sidenote, my feeling is that MO is a lot *less* competitive than the mathematical world at large. Certainly the so-called reputation hunt on MO has nothing on the publication hunt outside. And when talking to other mathematicians IRL the topic of conversation does sometimes drift to appraising other mathematicians -- who's doing good work right now, who's famous, but also (with some schadenfreude) who didn't get a job, whose recent articles should not have been published, etc. I guess this is natural when you have lots of talented and highly motivated people who want to work in a field where there are not enough jobs for everybody, but it's still offputting.
    • CommentAuthorMariano
    • CommentTimeFeb 3rd 2011

    The inspiration would be Slashdot, which had "karma" probably before the founders of reddit had an internet connection :)

    • CommentAuthorStorkle
    • CommentTimeFeb 3rd 2011

    Ryan: Thanks for telling me about that effort. It seems like a worthwhile effort to free MO from SE. But I'm afraid I'm only as free to build a better site as my programming skills allow: in the end, not very free. Also, it looks like nothing has been happening there for a while, and I get an error when I try to open the page.


    The name does not suggest that reputation should correspond to mathematical ability. This was absolutely not the intention of StackExchange, and it is clearly not the interpretation stated in the FAQ:

    Reputation is a (very) rough measurement of how much the MathOverflow community trusts you.

    It is completely internal to the community and was never intended to reflect anything about a user outside the community. One could speculate for hours about why mathematicians are particularly disposed to ignore this sentence in the FAQ. I think mathematicians generally have a tendency to take things too literally, and that this is a simple, and ignorable, case of culture clash between the people who wrote the software and the people who use it.

    If nothing else will convince you that reputation is actually useful, consider that it is an efficient way to quickly evaluate anonymous users who are causing trouble. If an anonymous user who is causing trouble has reputation 50, they are probably trolls and should be dealt with accordingly even if they've gotten upvotes on a few answers (they can still be smart trolls!). If an anonymous user who is causing trouble has reputation 5000, they are clearly invested in the community and worth dealing with more carefully (there is no reason for such a user to suddenly become a troll).

    @Qiaochu. When I said that the name "reputation" makes it sound like your number of points is a measure of how good you are as a mathematician I was not talking about the intention of the SE team or what is in the FAQ. I meant it as a statement about one of the (unfortunate) connotations of the word. Can I link this without coming across as the kind of jerk who quotes Wikipedia definitions during on-line arguments?

    I agree that having a point system is useful and I am not suggesting that one should get rid of it.

    One could speculate for hours about why mathematicians are particularly disposed to ignore this sentence in the FAQ.

    It doesn't take much speculation. Hardly anyone reads the FAQ, and even fewer read it thoroughly.

    • CommentAuthorStorkle
    • CommentTimeFeb 3rd 2011 edited

    Also, no matter how carefully anyone reads it, the FAQ does not have the power to redefine words for us. If the statistic had been named "sexiness", and the FAQ read "Sexiness is a (very) rough measure of how much the MO community trusts you," it would still be a terrible name. The name matters (I guess this is similar to what dan petersen wrote).

    I agree with the preceeding posts that it is one thing what is in the FAQs and another thing what instantly/subconciously comes to mind.
    However, let us also look what actually is written in the FAQs, and how one can (mis)understand it.

    "If you want to help us run the site, you'll need reputation first. Reputation is a (very) rough measurement of *how much the MathOverflow community trusts you.* Reputation is never given, it is *earned* by convincing other users that you know what you're talking about."

    It seems to me that purely from this text one could well get the impression that the community believes that high-reputation implies that the person knows what s/he is talking about, while little reputation leads to the default assumption that the person is not trustworthy and rather does not know much.

    To be clear, In particular the latter, is *not* my experience with the community, and also personnaly (as detailed above) I consider the reputation as a technicality of the site. The point I want to make is that it does not seem unreasonable to me that somebody considers precisely this description as not nice (for lack of a better word) towards new or infrequent users.

    Since we are at the FAQs, another point I raised above, but I repeat it for simplicty, is this formulation.

    "A question should be made community wiki if you don't think that people should gain reputation for their answers. A typical case is requests for references where it is the reference that is being judged by the voting system rather than the person who supplied it."

    Taking this and its implications litteraly (and I don't), I would find it quite strange:
    So, in non-CW mode a vote 'judges the person'? The person, not even the answer (and even with this change one could consider it as a bit harsh).

    For disclaimers, see my posts above.

    @Dan: I believe you misunderstood me.

    Todd points out that some undergraduates have more points than some Fields medalists, as if this were surprising

    No, not at all. I am merely pointing out that the word "reputation" is, therefore, pretty inapt. Far from surprising, there are obvious explanations which have already been given.


    @Dan: surely we can agree that connotations depend on context, and that in this context there is no sensible way for that particular connotation to apply, since the software has no way of knowing anything about the objective mathematical ability of its users. Reddit has karma, but no user of reddit assumes that that statistic has anything to do with how likely they are to be reincarnated (or even with how much good they've done in the "real world"). Reddit users know to think of karma as "reddit karma," just as MO users know to think of reputation as "MO reputation."

    @Storkle: I guess mathematical papers also do not have the power to redefine words, and yet it gets done all the time. When a mathematician says "a hedgehog is a topological space with property X" nobody interprets his theorems as saying anything about actual biological hedgehogs. It is of course debatable whether any given mathematical term is a good name or not, but do the names have anything to do with how interesting the paper is, for example? Again, I really cannot understand this fixation on names compared to the provision of an important public good.

    Here is a bad analogy, but I hope it gets across the spirit of my frustration: this response feels to me like a firefighter refusing to put out a fire because somebody put Hello Kitty stickers on his firehose and he can't get them off.

    • CommentAuthorStorkle
    • CommentTimeFeb 3rd 2011 edited

    Qiaochu: Well, in my own papers I was not always careful about giving objects good names, and have come to regret it on several occasions. Nowadays I spend more time thinking about what a good name for a mathematical object would be. I do think that giving mathematical objects good names is part of good mathematical writing, precisely because in a paper you do have the power to redefine words (and abusing this power can lead to plenty of confusion, I remember trying to understand what a perverse sheaf was for the first time, though now I've become so used to the phrase that for me, in ordinary conversation, perverse has lost all sense of disapprobation and I'm not sure I know what a sheaf is anymore).

    In my opinion, a similar thing has happened on MO with the word "reputation". And I don't see the conflict with the "provision of an important public good". What's wrong with wanting to improve delivery?

    IMO if you're interested in improving delivery you can contribute quality questions and answers to MO. Debating semantics on meta is more like quibbling, especially since it's been made clear the software is fixed so what you aim to improve isn't changable. It's not clear this thread has any purpose at this point.
    • CommentAuthorStorkle
    • CommentTimeFeb 3rd 2011

    Ryan: Perhaps surprisingly, I agree.


    Then, Dr. Kowalski, I am no longer sure what your position on this subject is. I was pretty sure the point of this thread was to convince you that badges and reputation should have no bearing on your decision to contribute more or less to MO. At this point of the discussion, do you agree or disagree with that statement?

    @Qiaochu Yuan: I was pretty sure the point of this thread was to discuss in general some points raised in / suggested by E. Kowalski's blog post. After all, the thread was started by a moderator of MO. Also, I highly doubt he (E.K.) participated in this thread.
    • CommentAuthorWillieWong
    • CommentTimeFeb 3rd 2011 edited

    @Qiaochu: wouldn't that question be better asked of EK on his blog? I don't think sufficient evidence points to him reading this thread.

    [Grrr, I got ninja'd again in this thread.]

    • CommentAuthorStorkle
    • CommentTimeFeb 3rd 2011

    I'm not EK! Also, EK's blog (linked by FGD in the first post above) has a more illuminating discussion in the comments.

    • CommentAuthorStorkle
    • CommentTimeFeb 3rd 2011

    ...but my (Storkle's) position on the subject is that I don't like the system very much. That hasn't changed.


    Whoops! I made some invalid inferences from the way Storkle responded to Pete Clark's comment. Well, in that case, I agree that this thread no longer has a purpose.