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I have offered my resignation as a moderator to the SE team and I think it's important that I provide some explanation here. Principally, I decided over the past weekend to pull the advertising for math.SE from a local professional newsletter because I was no longer comfortable recommending the site to my professional friends and colleagues, and given that state, I don't think it's appropriate for me to be a moderator.

For a little more than a month, nearly every visit to math.SE and meta.math.SE has left me feeling ill. From the moderator's view, there is a constant stream of nasty comments on the main site and frequent attacks on us and between users on the meta site. A small number of very loud users have a tendency to make overly-broad assertions about the moderators and draw conclusions from them (e.g. that we are not math people, that we are 20-somethings, that we don't know what USENET was like) and/or to assert that they have more experience than we do without any proof behind that assertion. It has been similarly asserted that the experience of MathOverflow trumps the much longer and much larger experience of StackOverflow, SuperUser and ServerFault.

From my personal perspective, there is a fundamental misunderstanding that is generating a lot of the ugliness on meta. A small number of very loud users seem to think that the goal of math.SE is to create the perfect math Q&A site and so they persist in demanding changes to the SE model, under the premise that math people are somehow different from normal people or programming people or other people. My understanding—as in, when I saw this site proposed on area51 and first joined, before I was a moderator—is that the goal of math.SE is to create a StackExchange Q&A site for math questions. By this, I mean that it is a fundamental part of the site that it has the same model and rules and behaviors as the other SE sites.

It has been suggested more than once that it is more important to retain users who have contributed a lot to this site than to ensure that those users behave appropriately; perhaps this should be taken as an indication that failing to ensure appropriate behavior from users will serve to drive away users who contribute a lot to this site.

I hope that once I no longer see math.SE from the perspective of a moderator, I will want to contribute again and perhaps even recommend the site to my friends and colleagues.

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    $\begingroup$ I am not sure whether to upvote this question or downvote it. I agree with what Isaac says (the talk about math sites being substantially different from others is pure BS, IMO), but don't like the idea of having a moderator quit, when the new elections are probably so close... $\endgroup$ – Aryabhata Nov 18 '10 at 21:19
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    $\begingroup$ Math is an outlier. The relation between Q and A has a time-, circumstance- and poster-independent core that is much rarer on a programming (or DIY, cooking, etc) site where things are temporary and contingent on OS, job, or whatever. This implies an "eternal" accretion quality to answers, which are addressed to mankind and not only the OP. There is a historical and archival dimension involving sources. There is a problem-solving subculture different from, and usually nonexistent in, other subjects. Most math seen by most humans is as schoolwork or homework. This adds up to DIFFERENT. $\endgroup$ – T.. Nov 18 '10 at 21:47
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    $\begingroup$ @T..: Have you actively participated in any non-mathematical stackexchange site to claim DIFFERENCE? $\endgroup$ – Aryabhata Nov 18 '10 at 21:53
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    $\begingroup$ @Moron: if you know of open-use non-mathematical sites (SE or other) with a quantitatively and qualitatively similar combination of peculiarities, which ones are they? Certainly some math traits listed above, and others I could not fit into a 500 character comment, are manifested sometimes on other types of site, but the combination and prominence of all those features is unique to math and (maybe) a few other mathematical ones like physics. $\endgroup$ – T.. Nov 18 '10 at 22:08
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    $\begingroup$ @T..: Regarding your differences. 1) Eternal: Even programming questions are eternal, and the whole premise of stackoverflow is based on having questions/answers being eternal. In any case, how is that relevant to having a different kind of site? 2) Source: Totally unimportant. You don't need any site support to cite sources etc. 3) Problem Solving subculture. Too vague to even discuss. Are these differences enough to warrant substantial changes in the stackexchange platform? I don't think so. Sorry, I still think the claims that math somehow needs to be different from other SE sites is BS. $\endgroup$ – Aryabhata Nov 18 '10 at 22:20
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    $\begingroup$ @T..: Of course math is different. That is why we have a different site in the first place. Also, how does the current site not address eternality? It was actually built on the premise of Q&A being eternally useful! Perhaps the current platform is not ideal, but I don't see any major issues with it either (apart from perhaps better full text search in the latex code). The recent CAPTCHA discussion about math being different was BS too, IMO. If math requires so much thinking, why don't you do it before posting? (I do agree CAPTCHA for frequent edits of the same answer is kind of pointless). $\endgroup$ – Aryabhata Nov 18 '10 at 22:38
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    $\begingroup$ @T..: The issue about "answered"/"homework" etc exists in most other SE sites. The will always be multiple ways to skin a cat. There will always be users trying to get their homework done on the internet and people will be divided on how to treat those. Whether it be math or programming or physics. Btw, the meaning of a "ticked" answer is that that was the one that helped the OP most. It is not necessarily the best. It does not even have to be correct! The community based voting is supposed to decide what the community thinks is the best answer, irrespective of OP's opinion. $\endgroup$ – Aryabhata Nov 18 '10 at 22:55
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    $\begingroup$ @Isaac: "I hope that...I will want to contribute again..." Me too. You are a valuable contributor to the site. Thank you for your service. $\endgroup$ – Jonas Meyer Nov 19 '10 at 0:34
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    $\begingroup$ @Bill: The way I parsed @Moron's comment was that it was BS to use "math is different" and "math needs so much thinking" in relation to the CAPTCHA discussion (in short, why not post only after you have a sure-fire magnum opus to share, so that you don't bump into the bot-detector so much?) On my part, unstable browsers have taught me to write answers out first in a plaintext editor, paste the mess into the answer box, and make cosmetic changes as needed based on the preview. $\endgroup$ – J. M. is a poor mathematician Nov 19 '10 at 3:46
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    $\begingroup$ @Bill: At this point, I would heartily disagree with "in any other field one person can master it all"; this is not the province of mathematics alone. I would say every field is crawling with specialists. $\endgroup$ – J. M. is a poor mathematician Nov 19 '10 at 4:01
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    $\begingroup$ @Bill: Dear Bill, Is it really true that one person can master all of physics? I've heard people say this of Feynman, but am not knowledgeable enough to judge whether it is really true. And even it were true of him (who was in any case clearly an extreme outlier), is it true, or even possible, now? $\endgroup$ – Matt E Nov 19 '10 at 4:17
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    $\begingroup$ @Bill: To use chemistry (my home field, as it were) as an example, not everything a physical chemist looks at would be of interest to a synthetic chemist. (Biology is even much more split-up than chemistry, and I'm too lazy to list examples) To use the apparently looked-down upon cooking as another example, there's not much overlap between different cuisines. My point is that it is unfair to say that only mathematics can there be no "master of all", the world nowadays is so complicated and we are people who only have so much space in the noggin. $\endgroup$ – J. M. is a poor mathematician Nov 19 '10 at 4:20
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    $\begingroup$ @Bill: I never claimed that mathematics is not different from other subjects. I claimed that justifying the need for a radically different platform based on the subject being different is BS and the comments so far don't seem to have helped in changing my mind. I really haven't seen any reasonable arguments which prove that the current SE2.0 platform is unsuitable for mathematics. All I see are some lofty descriptions of mathematics. $\endgroup$ – Aryabhata Nov 19 '10 at 4:36
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    $\begingroup$ @Bill: I suppose we will have to agree to disagree, then. Our perceptions of magnitude fundamentally differ, it looks. $\endgroup$ – J. M. is a poor mathematician Nov 19 '10 at 7:04
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    $\begingroup$ FWIW, I think that there are certain advantages in non-professional mathematicians being moderators, as long as they are not heavy-handed. $\endgroup$ – user1119 Nov 19 '10 at 10:25
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I'm sorry you have had such a negative recent moderating experience. In the best of circumstances, moderation is a rather thankless job. So I want to take this opportunity to thank you for your service.

There is an undeniable tension between the SE model and the goal to have a math Q&A site which serves the interests of the existing math Q&A community. I don't myself know how this will play out in the end: maybe there is room for compromise and collaboration, but maybe there isn't. We'll see.

I do want to acknowledge that a (very) small number of users have been absolutely vicious in their treatment of the moderators of this site. I was horrified when I first saw this, but like the frog in the pot I guess I got somewhat used to it as time passed. I'm sorry about that. Once again: good job, thank you.

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    $\begingroup$ "Like the frog in the pot I guess I got somewhat used to it as time passed" This is extremely disturbing to read, and this is what I was trying to tell you in comments of the linked question. It is absolutely imperative that we bring back civility. $\endgroup$ – Jeff Atwood Nov 18 '10 at 21:49
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    $\begingroup$ @Jeff: it can be brought back by example, not by force. $\endgroup$ – T.. Nov 18 '10 at 21:51
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    $\begingroup$ @Jeff Atwood: and I was trying to tell you that many of your own messages are being viewed as uncivil. (As a minor example, your response to this question conveys an opinion of the users of this site as simply a bunch of troublemakers.) I asked you whether you felt that you were more qualified than everyone else to judge what was civil behavior, and your answer was "yes". This is not a perspective conducive to building a healthy community. $\endgroup$ – Pete L. Clark Nov 18 '10 at 22:15
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    $\begingroup$ @Jeff: I'm not referring to any specific instance, but the general philosophy of heavy-handed "civility or else". Unless you and Isaac are reading an entirely different set of discussions than I have seen, a lot of the supposed incivility was just openness of opinion without any negative personal content. As Pete mentions, if anything your own messages were the more personalized, but I don't begrudge that to you (apart from the fact that it's your site) and would rather have a community with (1) more freedom of discussion, (2) less of the relentless flag-waving use of the word "community". $\endgroup$ – T.. Nov 18 '10 at 22:17
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    $\begingroup$ @Jeff Atwood: okay, this time at least you are misunderstanding me. I never said that I was against suspension of users in all cases. That is far from the case, and longtime MO users know that I have spoken out against truly problematic behavior. Absolutely suspensions are appropriate in some cases, and as I said, I am surprised that one particular user was not suspended sooner/more often. My point was that suspensions should not be discussed when people are calmly and politely discussing site issues. The meta site needs to be a priori receptive to that, or its existence is pointless. $\endgroup$ – Pete L. Clark Nov 18 '10 at 22:20
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    $\begingroup$ @Jeff Atwood: you are obviously not a policeman but a website administrator. And my point was not to question whether you are qualified but rather whether you are so qualified so as to make it wise to act unilaterally and in the face of significant reasoned opposition. It doesn't seem like you are listening carefully to what I'm saying or are interested in a serious discussion. That's unfortunate. $\endgroup$ – Pete L. Clark Nov 18 '10 at 22:31
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    $\begingroup$ @Pete it's disappointing that you would refer to the co-founder of the organization -- someone who cares deeply about the success of these communities -- as a "website administrator". I'm here because there are deep problems within this community. Exhibit A: this very question. So you can either fight me, insult me (as you just did) or you can work with me as a possible elected moderator to make this site more civil. Which will it be? $\endgroup$ – Jeff Atwood Nov 19 '10 at 0:07
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    $\begingroup$ @Jeff: while it is theoretically possible that "deep problems within this community" arise from odious users and bad site culture, I again suggest the possibility that there are fundamental impersonal causes (structural, technological, demographic) specific to a math site that will keep arising even if the entire current math.SE user population leaves and is replaced. Years of running a blog community may not be such relevant experience for running a non-blog in an area of one's non-expertise. Input of subject experts (e.g., mathematicians) may be more useful and worth heeding. $\endgroup$ – T.. Nov 19 '10 at 1:41
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    $\begingroup$ @Jeff Atwood: I didn't realize that "website administrator" was an insult. I honestly thought that you were, among other things, the head administrator of this website. (I am also under the impression that you are not in fact a police officer, but I don't know anything about your private life. Please correct me if I'm wrong.) I'm sorry that I offended you, although I don't quite understand why what I said caused offense. Please feel free to contact me privately to explain. $\endgroup$ – Pete L. Clark Nov 19 '10 at 2:58
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    $\begingroup$ @Jeff Atwood: Policemen are ultimately appointed by the people. You deserve all our thanks for creating the SE platform, but that itself does not make you a leader of the community. Just because you own the toys doesn't mean that you can dictate the rules of the game. I think that a democratic election of moderators from among the active contributors to the site is the only solution. And even then the less the moderators have to do, the better. $\endgroup$ – Jyotirmoy Bhattacharya Nov 19 '10 at 4:05
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    $\begingroup$ @jyot I don't recall voting any of our local police staff into office. In the general sense, my taxes pay their salaries, just like your time spent here pays mine. And policemen are given the trust to do some very uncivil things, like arrest people, in the name of the greater civic good. I help govern this site -- just like every other site under our banner -- when there are extreme problems: just scroll up and re-read this question to see why I am here. $\endgroup$ – Jeff Atwood Nov 19 '10 at 4:25
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    $\begingroup$ @Jeff: Just because what you're saying is true (that you're here to clean up because there's actual problems and that might require knocking a few heads) doesn't mean that it's helpful to say it that way. You're causing problems by behaving like a stereotypical policeman who cares more about asserting their authority than keeping the peace. If you need to come in here and ban someone that's great. But I think it'd be helpful for you to step away for a little while to calm down and then try not to say things that make the situation worse rather than better. $\endgroup$ – Noah Snyder Nov 19 '10 at 4:56
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    $\begingroup$ @Noah: this the first time I have seen SE personnel engage in two-way discussion of general site management. I think they should be encouraged to continue, not leave. The policeman metaphor is badly flawed but debating its merits comes at the expense of discussing site issues with those in a position to make many changes. $\endgroup$ – T.. Nov 19 '10 at 5:14
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    $\begingroup$ @noah unfortunately I've been "sleeping on" math.se for weeks now. It isn't magically getting any better by itself. I am pushing hard for moderator elections next week though, so if you don't want me here then MAKE ME OBSOLETE. Get elected, take control of your own community, and stop the rampant frog-boiling incivility. $\endgroup$ – Jeff Atwood Nov 19 '10 at 5:54
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    $\begingroup$ Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? $\endgroup$ – Robin Chapman Nov 19 '10 at 7:47
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Like everyone else I'd like to thank you for the time spent moderating. I feel particularly thankful because I've always felt a little bit guilty that I was too busy to be a moderator myself.

I occasionally visit both math.SE and meta.math.SE and I wanted to say that although every time I stop by the latter it seems like a mess, every time I look at the former it seems to me that it's working very well.

What I mean to say is that although as a moderator you have to wade through the muck that does occur, I think it may be helpful for you to realize that from the point of view of an occasional visitor the site you've been working on really does look good. Your time hasn't been wasted even though it might feel that way to you right now.

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Isaac,

Thanks for being a moderator. I concur that there's something unique about the math community as it exists here. Certainly the number of mod flags and problem "needs moderator intervention" issues here is about two orders of magnitude higher than any other community under our banner.

We're talking about this now and we are going to try the following:

  1. Democratic moderator elections using our new site code to do so (should be available by the end of next week)

  2. We will cross-reference with Math Overflow, where possible, to coordinate bans. If a user has been banned from Math Overflow, except in the case of extraordinary extenuating circumstances, they will be banned from here as well.

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    $\begingroup$ More positive and less tendentious examples of how math is different (for purposes of a Q & A site) were posted in the comments under the question/resignation. Without a 500-character limit the list would be much longer. It has implications for the "fit" to the SE software platform. $\endgroup$ – T.. Nov 18 '10 at 21:57
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    $\begingroup$ @Jeff: I find it extremely hard to believe that mod issues here are two orders of magnitude higher than any other community. Do you have statistics to back this up this claim? $\endgroup$ – Bill Dubuque Nov 19 '10 at 2:34
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    $\begingroup$ @Jeff: MO actually has a very light hand with actually banning people, so I doubt that's really going to help much. (I've actually argued on meta.MO that something like SO's exponential approach would be better there, but Anton prefers a more patient approach.) $\endgroup$ – Noah Snyder Nov 19 '10 at 4:02
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    $\begingroup$ Dear Jeff, Does "problem ... issues here" in your answer mean on the main site or on Meta? Thanks in advance for your answer, and best wishes, $\endgroup$ – Matt E Nov 19 '10 at 4:07
  • $\begingroup$ In connection with Matt E's question and Isaac's statement about frequent and ongoing nastiness on the main site, it would be informative to know how much hostile material (numbers of hostile comments or answers) is deleted by moderators on the math.SE main site. Are we talking about a few per day? Hundreds per week? Other than interrogation and accusation of actual or suspected homework posters, I am not seeing much negative material. 10K (2K) tools did not show many closures or flags during the beta. Is there a [flamewar] tag I should be searching for? $\endgroup$ – T.. Nov 19 '10 at 4:53
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    $\begingroup$ @bill tex.stackexchange.com has similar levels of traffic and a similarly technical bent. Critical mod messages between meta/parent: 14. This site has 156. So, I may have exaggerated a bit: it's only one order of magnitude. But, math.se also has the dubious distinction of being the only site in the network where one pro-tem moderator quit, one permanent user ban has been applied, and two users requested permanent site deletion. The data tells the story, and it's not good. $\endgroup$ – Jeff Atwood Nov 19 '10 at 4:55
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    $\begingroup$ Comparing the "technical bent" of a TeX site and a general math site is exactly the kind of inattention to demographics that would cause growth problems. A TeX group is by its nature limited to people with a need (or hobby) for technical typesetting. This is a selected group -- older, more educated, etc -- compared to the diverse user base of an all-levels math group where non-technical users are posting problems from their math classes. TeX is impersonal and less prone to contests of interpretation, ego, or "handwaving". Of course you expect much less antagonism on a TeX site. $\endgroup$ – T.. Nov 19 '10 at 5:39
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    $\begingroup$ @T.. these stats are also true for other peer sites in the network of similar vintage. And as I mentioned, math is the only site in the entire network where one pro-tem moderator quit, one permanent user ban has been applied, and two users requested permanent site deletion. On all our other SE 2.0 sites combined we've had exactly one user deletion to date ... and certainly no permanent user bans or pro-tem moderators quitting out of frustration. $\endgroup$ – Jeff Atwood Nov 19 '10 at 5:41
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    $\begingroup$ @Jeff: I don't know what you consider peer sites, and your sample size is five hard-to-generalize events. Due to reasons of content and demographics a math site will have more back and forth than many others, and any structural problems (e.g., not adapting the platform to problems and phenomena that are naturally more intensive or frequent on a math site) will exacerbate the tension. If there is an excess of problems on the math site after proper accounting for other factors, it is likely structural rather than due to a lack of policemen. $\endgroup$ – T.. Nov 19 '10 at 5:48
  • $\begingroup$ Also, can you clarify how the numbers compare for problems considering the main, non-meta, sites only, and also what the incidence rate is over time? Was that 156 main-plus-meta "critical mod messages" (what does that expression mean) for math.SE in approximately three months? $\endgroup$ – T.. Nov 19 '10 at 5:52
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    $\begingroup$ @Jeff: Every math forum at this level has similar troubles. That's the nature of the beast. Because math at this level has such universal applications it attracts a much more diverse group of members than most other sites - perfect breeding ground for every sort of clash under the universe (egotistical, philosophical, pedagogical, foundational, etc). Anyone active in the older math forums knows this all too well. This might be an unpleasant surprise to younger or less experienced mods, but it would hardly ruffle the feathers of thick-skinned old-timers $\endgroup$ – Bill Dubuque Nov 19 '10 at 6:22
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    $\begingroup$ @Bill, some of the closed subscription, research-oriented math mailing lists for academics have more flamewars than this site (I am thinking of FOM but I remember some lesser problems on other lists as well). That is in an area more "prone to contests of interpretation, ego or handwaving", so maybe the same gradations apply within math as well. $\endgroup$ – T.. Nov 19 '10 at 6:33
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dear Isaac,

a few comments.

First of all, to the extent that moderation here took up your time, thanks for volunteering.

Second, the work done by moderators (the part requiring more than edit powers) is somewhat invisible and if it is crucial to the site that should be made clear. I have raised, and am not the only one interested in, the question of what functions the moderation performs, which of those are beneficial, and how much can be automated or obviated by changes to the software. Especially in light of the imminent moderator elections, any concrete information you can provide such as what number of hours per week the moderation took up for you and how they were typically spent, would be illuminating and appreciated. Perhaps it could be done in a separate thread or an update of the old one.

Third, your discussion of a "misunderstanding" of math.SE's nature is at odds with the assertions of the site founders that SE is "like USENET 2.0". In addition to learning the lessons from past forums that failed, this site is specifically being compared with USENET because 2.0 has not reached the functionality of 1.0, not to mention its level of freedom and laissez faire intellectual content sharing. For as long as the site creators (and their promotional material) proudly cite USENET as a precursor and analogue of the current enterprise, the two will be compared. Comparisons will also be made with other less structurally similar math sites, but the newsgroups are for many reasons the primary point of comparison, and the SE founders did not cite them by accident. The demographic and volume issues faced by USENET groups are just beginning to be felt on this site, but they are the same. MathOverflow and math.SE are directly analogous to sci.math.research and sci.math, respectively, and I don't know anyone familiar with all of those forums who does not see it that way.

Fourth, I also doubt that people conversing on the meta misunderstand that, having created StackOverflow, the founders intend to clone its platform for the new sites, and have an incentive to assembly-line the expansion process without too many single-site customizations. The actual point that some may have missed in the back-and-forth about the present and future structure of math.SE is that the role of the users here need not be a passive one. Of course the users can make of the site what they will as content contributors, but they also have an interest in advising SE on molding the software to the needs and interests of a math site. As Jeff Atwood has stated in his recent comments, this can be a win-win because the math site drives technology later found to be useful on the other sites, such as TeX display, and I believe that all the seemingly "special" suggestions based on needs of a math site would ultimately benefit all the SE sites, including StackOverflow and the SE 2.0 platform.

Finally, you use "e.g." as though it were heading a generic list of misguided statements here in the meta.math.SE, but in fact you criticize a single posting by a single user. It is easy enough to find the original and notice that any substantive resemblance between your summary and what was posted is relatively slight. For instance, it was not asserted that all moderators are 20-something (though most are), or that USENET experience or an academic research background are prerequisites for moderators of the site. It would certainly be helpful if the latter categories were well-represented among the moderators, and of course, I would prefer a setup that limits the dependence on any moderators of any background.

Whatever you may think of the above: thanks again for your time.

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