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Imagine this...

Sitting in your home, in front of your desk, doing your math homework from school, college, or just for fun, and stuck in a certain exercise.

You come across this great website, and ask a question.

What happens next?

Unfortunately, in most of the cases today, you get criticized on the way you asked the question, some even insult you, some explain kindly about the website, but eventually the answer is not reached and your question is ignored.

As far as I know, as one who used this site a lot, believe that we should treat new arrivals better. We need to first answer the question, and THEN explain how the website works and all. Furthermore, I suggest that when someone signs up to the site will get an automated email from moderator with basic rules, so those will be better accessible for the new asker.

When someone gets treated nicely as an asker, he will eventually become a helper and will contribute back to the site, like I'm trying to do everyday since finishing my B.A.

Great surfing and learning to us all!

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    $\begingroup$ I like your analysis of the situation - it is often easier to criticise a new user than to answer their question! On the other hand, I disagree that an answer should be given immediately. I still think the OP should help themselves first. (Also, I think the e-mail wouldn't make a difference.) $\endgroup$ – user1729 Sep 16 '13 at 12:54
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    $\begingroup$ I believe we need to assume the asker came to us only after he tried his best to solve the question himself $\endgroup$ – DanielY Sep 16 '13 at 12:55
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    $\begingroup$ @DanielY That assumption is false in a sufficiently large fraction of cases that it would be more or less delusive to maintain it -- even though I'd rejoice if it were true. $\endgroup$ – Lord_Farin Sep 16 '13 at 12:58
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    $\begingroup$ So, what is your question? $\endgroup$ – Gerry Myerson Sep 16 '13 at 13:03
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    $\begingroup$ I've been thinking about something related to this. Apart from the fact that users can keep anonimity if they're careful, MSE is becoming more intimidating than asking questions in class or meeting the lecturer. Granted this has some advantadges, but MSE being intimidating is probably not what was intended with it. $\endgroup$ – Git Gud Sep 16 '13 at 23:25
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    $\begingroup$ @GerryMyerson: the sufficiently clear and none too implicit question, given its posting as a meta thread, is "how should we treat new askers? Here is my opinion, add yours if you like". $\endgroup$ – zyx Sep 17 '13 at 1:20
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    $\begingroup$ Do you have numerical evidence to support your allegation that "in most of the cases today" when someone new posts a question "eventually the answer is not reached and [the] question is ignored"? $\endgroup$ – Gerry Myerson Sep 17 '13 at 3:41
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    $\begingroup$ @GerryMyerson : why is it important whether it is "most" or "many" or "too many" cases? Here we have a new poster (on meta) and it demonstrates his point to attack the post and pick apart details of the wording and punctuation. $\endgroup$ – zyx Sep 17 '13 at 4:17
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    $\begingroup$ @zyx, what if it's only three cases? or two? or none at all? Should we be tearing our hair over a problem that may not even exist? I'd like to know how big this problem is, before I decide how much I'm going to worry about it. Daniel claims it happens most of the time. That's an incendiary claim, especially when it's presented without a skerrick of supporting evidence. Sorry, I'm a mathematician: show me the numbers. $\endgroup$ – Gerry Myerson Sep 17 '13 at 4:23
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    $\begingroup$ @GerryMyerson, you are a more active user than I am, and I see no shortage of examples of the negative comment treatment the OP mentions. I have done web searches for phrases like "what have you tried", "does not meet the quality standards" and similar on MSE, and you could do the same, there is some interesting stuff there. I don't see non-answers as a problem, but the fraction of unanswered questions was some 15 to 20 percent when Answer Crusade chat thread started. $\endgroup$ – zyx Sep 17 '13 at 4:31
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    $\begingroup$ @dfeuer, you just don't know the right mathematicians. $\endgroup$ – Gerry Myerson Sep 17 '13 at 13:01
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    $\begingroup$ One day while doing your high school math homework, you learn that there are universities with a whole buildings dedicated to mathematics! So you go visit, find a mathematicians office, and hand him your homework assignment. Or maybe you're more savvy and find a professor's e-mail, and send him your worksheet that way. What happens next? $\endgroup$ – user14972 Sep 17 '13 at 19:55
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    $\begingroup$ We have not failed if someone who uses this website wrongly fails to get their desired answer. The fact a question goes unanswered is only a problem if we believe MSE should, among other things, be a service for answers on demand for anything that can pass for being mathematics related. Whether we need to be more polite about it or need a better process for newcomers is a separate issue, and should probably be discussed separately from the topic of whether every question should be answered. $\endgroup$ – user14972 Sep 17 '13 at 20:05
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    $\begingroup$ @DanielY Excuse me if I am dense, but I have trouble understanding your question. Just what kind of comments would you classify as insulting? I know that some consider comments like "what have you tried?" as rude, but such comments are far from insulting. And putting the rudeness problem aside, my impression is that insulting comments are never tolerated on MSE and they should always be flagged. So, this seems to me a non-issue. $\endgroup$ – user1551 Sep 17 '13 at 20:43
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    $\begingroup$ > unanswered is only a problem if we believe MSE should, among other things, be a service for answers on demand < --- The fact that a large fraction of questions do not get immediate answers, and there being few complaints about this fact, should tell you that talk of 'on-demand answer services' is silly emotionalized rhetoric and was so the last N times it was dragged into the conversation. If anything, with more questions, the burden shifts more to the asker to attract the interest of potential answerers. If they don't succeed, and (sans closing) there is no answer: their problem. @Hurkyl $\endgroup$ – zyx Sep 17 '13 at 22:07
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There are homework-help sites. Our rude repliers try to keep this forum from turning into one of them. If this forum does become known as a homework-answer site, won't that content soon outnumber everything else?

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    $\begingroup$ The problem can be addressed in a polite way. There is no need to rude replies. $\endgroup$ – user1729 Sep 17 '13 at 17:41
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    $\begingroup$ Homework-driven questions, and equivalent level and type of material, are the majority of mathematics being done at any time. Laymen outnumber undergraduates who outnumber graduate students and professionals. Any forum that is not specialized by subject or by level will therefore tend to be dominated by low-level postings. As long as that is the SE model (excepting Mathoverflow) for a math site, there is no possiblity that harrassing posters of homework-like questions is going to magically reverse the implications of growth in the user base. Early adopters were more expert than late ones. $\endgroup$ – zyx Sep 17 '13 at 17:54
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    $\begingroup$ I would like to add to zyx's wonderful comment by saying that certain tags attract homework while others do not. Very few questions get closed in group theory for being badly posed, and none in geometric group theory! However, I have not dared ever to click on the calculus tag. My point is that tags separate stuff and homework can be hidden by just not caring about basic calculus and other low-level stuff. $\endgroup$ – user1729 Sep 17 '13 at 18:52
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    $\begingroup$ @user1729: An approach that does a terrible job for those who like helping people learn low-level stuff, but are disinclined to participate in an solution service. $\endgroup$ – user14972 Sep 17 '13 at 20:41
  • $\begingroup$ I agree, though, with the sentiment that using rudeness to drive people away is just... well... rude. There are more direct and neutral mechanisms to effect such a change. But as much as I dislike it, it's easy to empathize with those who would turn to social pressure when change doesn't seem to be happening. $\endgroup$ – user14972 Sep 17 '13 at 20:49
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    $\begingroup$ @Hurkyl Yes, it is easy to empathise. However, I believe that the best way to increase the quality of questions is to help them to post better ones rather than to drive all first-timers who post poor questions away. Yes, nothing seems to be happening, but it is only us the members who can make it happen... (Although I will admit that it is easy for me to say this as I only really come across such questions in the review queue.) $\endgroup$ – user1729 Sep 18 '13 at 9:02
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I think it's time to add some context. What happens is the following:

  1. A new user arrives with a question. The generic user is just interested in receiving answers to their question. They aren't aware of the subtle and not-so-subtle ways in which MSE differs from many other sites. They skip FAQ/help centre, let alone meta, and just post their question, generically without work, context or motivation.

  2. Established users view the question. The generic established user with interest in quality assurance is interested in the long-term welfare of MSE as a platform, and has clear ideas on what level of work, context and/or motivation should be present in a question.

    Moreover, said user has come across many violators of their propagated policy and probably doesn't stop to recall their own arrival at MSE. A quick judgement is formed, a terse request is posted in the comments. A down- or close vote may be cast.

  3. New user is surprised by the "hostile" response, and may e.g. leave, submit to a defensive reflex, or ask the same question again to circumvent the down- and close votes.

  4. Users signal the problem of the foregoing and post meta-threads or comments, in which they call (in a wide range of tones) to the established users with a sketch of the issue.

Good. Now we're all on the same page. I reiterate to be discussing generic users.


Now it is, as far as I'm concerned, too easy to merely blame/accuse the established users mentioned in point 2. They are human, too. Especially on the internet it is all too easy to do something without properly thinking it through. Their intent is not to insult the new user. It is their attempt to keep MSE a valuable place for discussing maths -- this should not be overlooked.

I take a terse response and/or downvotes over no response at all -- or, formulated differently, an expressed display of care (however tough to decipher for the recipient) over sheer disinterest. E.g. closing a new user's question with this close reason is an effective way of letting them, and anyone else know, that there is resistance against the displayed behaviour. The same holds for downvotes.

On the other hand, the established users (which include me, and probably you, reader) should consider the effect of their response prior to posting. What will be more effective? A nice custom-tailored reply, or a terse "WHYT" and close vote? To ask the question is to answer it.

Yes, a "nice custom-tailored reply" takes more time. Time that could be spent answering/browsing other questions. But it is a more effective way to contribute to achieving a three-fold goal:

  1. Improving the question at hand;
  2. Making a new user familiar with the etiquette;
  3. "Recruiting" the user to give back what they receive and become an established user themselves.

Even if only a tiny fraction of these replies contribute towards 3, I still contend it's worth the effort. For, more people answering means an increased knowledge base, and the gain of a new established user will (at least in the long run) outweigh the small time gain of the community giving them a harsh, standardised welcome.

In conclusion, hard as it may be to suppress those impulses at times, we ought to invest the time to be nice and explain where we're coming from, and where we want to go. Ultimately, this is only in the community's interest.

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    $\begingroup$ A comment on the order of "If you show us what you have tried perhaps someone can use your work as the basis for a useful hint or a complete answer." explains to the user how to make the question better. If you happen to see such a statement up-vote it. This statement is not that hard to type. $\endgroup$ – Jay Sep 18 '13 at 0:13

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