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Bill Dubuque raises the point in the comments here that new answers to old questions have less visibility than one might expect. (He raises several other points, but let's talk about this one for now.) I think this is due to the following. There are, as far as I can tell, generally three ways to view questions:

  1. Going to http://math.stackexchange.com (including from meta).
  2. Clicking on "questions" while on math.SE.
  3. RSS feed.

The first option defaults to "active," while the second option defaults to "newest." I believe the RSS feed only updates when questions are asked or edited, not when new answers are posted or edited. So there is a problem: a user who browses for an extended period of time may never see new answers to old questions, which means the software is disincentivizing answering old questions.

This seems unfortunate. Do we have a way to change the default from "newest" to "active" in option 2, and should we? What can /should be done about option 3?

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This is intentional, and has been this way since the beginning:

  • the homepage reflects questions with the latest activity
  • the default /questions page reflects the newest questions

Note that the question page, like many others in our engine, has "sticky tabs", so if you click the active tab on /questions it will remain your default tab until you change it again.

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  • $\begingroup$ Is it the case that new answers to old questions will receive less exposure by the ranking algorithm as compared to an answer to a new question? In other words, is this problem due to both both the software and user behavior, or only the latter? (i.e. users viewing only newest vs. active questions) $\endgroup$ – Gone Feb 10 '11 at 3:15
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I think we should make "active" the default view if we can.

This is something I hadn't considered before, because I almost always go to the main page which (as you mention) automatically lists "active" questions. Now that you bring it up, I realize that there may be many less familiar with how the sorting works and who may not know what they're missing by only using the default "newest" view. So I think this is a good idea, not only for the benefit of those posting answers to old questions, but for general users of the site to have easier access to what is happening on the site.

I'm not sure what to do about RSS feeds. Maybe we could put a little disclaimer below the RSS link, warning that not all new activity is included in the feed, so that users know that they have to view the site directly to see it all.

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