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Initially, I was going to write this as a response to this discussion. It seems, however, a larger issue, which I think merits a separate thread, perhaps a sequel to this one. For people who have not read the threads, the context is that two comments of Pete L. Clark on the thread about sponsored speakers were removed without notification by Jeff Atwood.

Apparently this is the new criterion for removing a comment:

if the moderator agrees that the comment does not add to the post in a constructive way

I find Jeff Atwood's standards for removing comments puzzling and disturbing. I myself have removed comments, on very rare occasions, where they were genuinely noise, offensive, or spam. I am also surprised that Jeff Atwood is enforcing these standards (and, more generally, assuming the duties of a moderator) on the present website, of which he is not an active contributor (that is, mathematically), when there are probably bigger issues (i.e., on meta.SO) to take care of, where his role might be more useful. The president of the U.S. does not participate in a local board meeting.

I think that, if these heavy-handed interventions continue, we will have actual problems on our hands. Let us consider the "optics" of the present one. Pete L. Clark, professional mathematician and high rep user, known for his frequently entertaining, witty, and intellectual remarks over the internet (for those who have followed MO, at least) says something on a thread where his contributions might be most intently followed -- on a thread on math.SE's potential role in the mathematical community. Jeff Atwood, who is not a member of this community, unilaterally deletes the comments, without even consulting the moderators first.

Here is the text of Dr. Clark's comments:

@everyone else Not to rub it in, but the people who go to math conferences tend to be research mathematicians. For those people, if you go to a conference stumping for math.SE, they'll probably look at you a little confused and ask "Do you mean MathOverflow?" When you say no, you mean a more recent general purpose math site that is owned and operated by someone with a self-professed ineptitude for mathematics and documented exasperation with mathematicians, many will probably be disappointed.

@all: I scratched my head for a good while about this, and then I googled a little and saw that Jeff Atwood has left basically the same message at many other SE sites. Perhaps that information will be relevant to you if you're wondering how well thought out this is relative to the math.SE community in particular.

And here's what Dr. Clark had to say about those comments in the discussion following their removal:

I'm sure that Jeff Atwood knows which comments he deleted. I do not save such comments for posterity, but the gist of the first comment was that I didn't see that the original post made a lot of sense or applied to math.SE in any clear way, and this confused me until I saw that almost the same [or in fact maybe identical; I didn't check that carefully] posts have been made on many other [maybe all?] SE sites. So I took as an answer to my question that this initiative is not particular to mathematics in any way.

In the second comment I mentioned my opinion that the professional math community would probably receive such sponsorship rather awkwardly, since MathOverflow is currently the flagship math Q&A site among professional mathematicians. I included a remark about how, unlike MO, the founder of math.SE has gone on record as being hopelessly inept at mathematics and has also expressed particular exasperation at the way mathematicians behave...the implication being that he has not exactly acted as an ambassador for mathematics.

It is very hard for me even to see how these are nonconstructive. It seems that the only "nonconstructiveness" of these deleted comments lies in their being, er, not uncharacteristically praising. Perhaps the "self-professed ineptitude" upset Mr. Atwood, but it is hard to see how quoting Mr. Atwood's own words to argue that he is not an ambassador for mathematics could reasonably do so. Dr. Clark later clarified that he realized that the SE team had made similar posts across the network (which answers the first question), but his point that this proposal has not been completely thought out, and that advertising a general math site like math.SE would be received a bit funnily at a research conference, is completely reasonable.

But whether it is reasonable isn't even the issue. Mr. Atwood apparently (according to an email he sent us) thinks that this is somehow critical of the community; if it is, then he simply could have responded in kind, rather than effacing it from the thread. (And what is wrong with being critical of the community?)

So I, as a moderator, have no interest in removing comments as "nonconstructive." Although math.SE is not formally a professional forum, its most active participants are either professional mathematicians or experts in related fields. I always saw math.SE as a (non-research-level ) sister to MathOverflow. Which is to say that this is supposed to be a gathering of adults interacting as equals (and potentially arguing, on meta), who do not (entirely reasonably) wish to be treated like prattling kindergarteners.

As far as I know, the three standard moderators (I'm going to say that Jeff is ex officio a moderator), do not delete posts for these expansive reasons. So I find it upsetting that Jeff would walk over all community norms to enforce these guidelines. For instance, suppose by some accident I were given moderator powers on StackOverflow. The extent of my programming knowledge is that I can script a few lines in bash or get Python to compute the Fibonacci numbers; I wouldn't be able to distinguish between Ruby and PHP. So if I started deleting comments about the programming community that dared to be critical, it'd be surprising if I didn't get called out for it.

(For the record, my brief perusal of SO and meta.SO suggests that those communities tend to be much more acerbic and harsh in their comments than we do over here. As far as I can tell, we are a relatively gentle community, and should be even gentler in moderation; there have been, to my knowledge, only two high rep users whom we have suspended.)

I don't know StackOverflow. I do know it is a company that wants to make a profit (and I realize maintaining this place costs money, and would understand the possible introduction of mild and tasteful advertising or something like that), and perhaps it is thought best to have a sanitized community where insufficiently deferential comments are deleted. But that's just so totally antithetical to what mathematics is about. On the main site, a high-schooler can correct a college professor if she has made a mistake; on the meta site, a regular user should be able to correct Jeff Atwood.

To wrap this up, I am asking Mr. Atwood to think very carefully before making such unilateral interventions in our community. There are three moderators, and all of us check the website relatively frequently. There are already automated features to remove genuinely offensive comments (six flags deletes a comment). Mr. Atwood's presence as a day-to-day moderator on this website should not, thus, be necessary.

I have made this request before, and for a while, it seemed to work. But Mr. Atwood has continued to play a role as a moderator behind the scenes, usually (fortunately) restricting himself to obvious spam. It seems that now, he has chosen to ignore his own theory of moderation and unilaterally remove thoughtful comments. These sorts of actions alienate not only Dr. Clark, but also the rest of us. Many of us, frankly, find your actions, not such comments, to be unnecessarily abrasive. Please stop.

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    $\begingroup$ Wow... those were the "redacted" comments? I can see how Jeff would be "offended" by Pete's remarks, but they don't seem the very sort of comments that require a "scorched earth" deletion. A response would have been the genteel thing to do. $\endgroup$ – J. M. is a poor mathematician Apr 17 '11 at 16:13
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    $\begingroup$ I completely agree with @J. M. I must say that I find it very strange that Jeff refused to admit that it was him deleting the comments. The cost of losing one of the most valuable contributors to this site (the second expert to leave within a week) is enormous for the community. $\endgroup$ – t.b. Apr 17 '11 at 17:20
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    $\begingroup$ @Theo What expert left this week? $\endgroup$ – Bill Dubuque Apr 17 '11 at 18:40
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    $\begingroup$ @Bill: Douglas Zare (he was rather new here). $\endgroup$ – t.b. Apr 17 '11 at 18:46
  • $\begingroup$ @Theo: Douglas Zare left? $\endgroup$ – Mariano Suárez-Álvarez Apr 17 '11 at 19:24
  • $\begingroup$ @Mariano: It seems so. More info in this question: meta.math.stackexchange.com/questions/1938/… $\endgroup$ – user5501 Apr 17 '11 at 19:43
  • $\begingroup$ @Mariano: I'm afraid it certainly looks like he left. He threatened to do so here and hasn't been seen since shortly afterwards. $\endgroup$ – t.b. Apr 17 '11 at 19:44
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    $\begingroup$ @Theo Ah, yes, the recent "balls and bins" fiasco. That's a perfect example of why I think it is essential to fix errors quickly - before they alienate (new) experts. Once I explicitly edited a seriously incorrect/incomplete answer to add a warning. But, alas, some folks didn't agree that was the best course of action. We need to figure out a better way of quickly drawing attention to errors that could otherwise mislead new folks to form false conclusions about the collective expertise of the site. $\endgroup$ – Bill Dubuque Apr 17 '11 at 19:51
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    $\begingroup$ @Theo I just sent Douglas an email explaining matters and encouraging him to return. $\endgroup$ – Bill Dubuque Apr 17 '11 at 19:52
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    $\begingroup$ @Bill: I want to thank you also for doing so. @All: to prevent this from getting too off topic, may I suggest we either open a separate thread (or revisit an old one) to discuss how to deal with "obviously wrong" answers? Doing the discussion here will make it very difficult to find it again to reference in the future. $\endgroup$ – Willie Wong Apr 17 '11 at 20:12
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    $\begingroup$ @Theo: Perhaps Douglas has not left but, rather, is lost in the joys of the recently (temporarily?) freely-released 2nd edition of Stanley's superb Enumerative combinatorics. vol. 1 - which was mentioned in said thread. Anyone with an interest in combinatorics should download this masterpiece while it is still freely available. $\endgroup$ – Bill Dubuque Apr 17 '11 at 22:58
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    $\begingroup$ "if I started deleting comments about the programming community that dared to be critical, it'd be surprising if I didn't get called out for it" If you started deleting unconstructive, ad-hominem comments from Stack Overflow believe me -- you'd be applauded. And rightly so. $\endgroup$ – Jeff Atwood Apr 18 '11 at 4:40
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    $\begingroup$ @chandru not exactly.. Robin Chapman has not been participating elsewhere either mathoverflow.net/users/4213?tab=recent#sort-top $\endgroup$ – Jeff Atwood Jun 5 '11 at 19:53
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    $\begingroup$ @chandru His last contribution to MO was a comment on Dec 17 2010. His last contribution to math.se was a comment on Dec 20 2010. Seems like he's taking a hiatus from all online math activity to me, but I don't know any other math sites other than these two. $\endgroup$ – Jeff Atwood Jun 6 '11 at 3:40
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    $\begingroup$ Well it looks like Mr. Atwood won't be coming around anymore. We barely knew ye! $\endgroup$ – The Chaz 2.0 Feb 13 '12 at 2:53
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I am working on a comprehensive explanation of why I will no longer be participating in the site, but let me respond to some of Jeff Atwood's latest message here.

I felt very strongly, and I still feel very strongly, that these are deeply unconstructive comments to leave on that post -- to the point that they are actively hurtful to the community and the speaking initiative.

Thank you for admitting some of your own personal role in this matter. You still have failed to address whether any other person felt the same way as you about this. Since you continue to use the language of community, this seems like an important issue to me. Of course, by not responding, you are forcing us to draw our own conclusions about this.

The extraordinarily rude tone of "not to rub it in, but your community is not good enough to attend a conference." Any time something is prefaced with "not to rub it in", I think that's a pretty good sign that what follows ... isn't going to be particularly constructive.

It is absolutely unacceptable -- bordering on libelous -- to use quotation marks when describing someone's remarks when what you have quoted is not in fact literally what they said. I think you know better than this: please change it immediately.

I absolutely did not say "your community is not good enough to attend a conference". For instance because to say that does not make any sense: it's my community (at least it was) and many members of my community are, like me, professional mathematicians, so attend conferences all the time. And some people who are not professional mathematicians attend math conferences as well, but for certain specific reasons. My point was rather that there is not a specific set of conferences for the "math.SE community" -- what there are are math conferences, math education conferences, student math conferences, and so forth. Note that in another comment I asked what a "relevant math conference" was, and the response was "relevant to the math.SE community". But that's a content-free answer: what is an example of a math conference that is irrelevant to the math.SE community? Again, my point is that pretending that MO does not exist as far as this initiative goes doesn't make a lot of sense. It does, and it has had a presence at the Joint Meetings for the last two years. It would be wise to think about what the role of math.SE should be in comparison to that of MO.

I am not relevant here; as you brought up correctly multiple times the math.se community itself has little to nothing to do with me.

Would that that were true. Although you are not part of the community as regards mathematical content, you are the loudest voice on the meta site, and you silence other voices that are incompatible with yours. A few months ago you said that you would stop behaving in this way once the math.SE site started behaving in a way more statistically in line with other SE sites. But your latest remarks show that you behave the same way on many SE sites, so both your words and your actions show that you are intent on playing a disproportionate role in the discussion. To my mind and that of many of the other serious users of this site, that is the big issue facing meta.SE right now. If it's off-limits to talk about that issue, then we can't talk about what's actually on our mind, which is why I have decided to leave.

Therefore, when Pete Clark brings up "Jeff Atwood" in his comments, it is as an irrelevant, ad-hominem distraction -- by the very definition of your own post!

I don't feel this way, and many other people don't feel this way. But you feel this way, and that is enough to stifle the discussion. That is unacceptable to me.

The speaking sponsorships are between you guys/gals and the math. I'm irrelevant -- and even if I wasn't, Stack Exchange, Inc. is sponsoring the speaking initiative, not me personally.

I don't see it that way at all. These sponsorships were not brought up by any regular member of the math.SE community. They were brought up by you. It is actually not even clear to me that your post was within the (apparently, increasingly narrow) scope of meta.math.SE: how does this question pertain to the running of the site? It doesn't, at least not directly, and attempts to get you explain the nature of the relationship were summarily deleted. To say that you are not sponsoring the initiative is again a very tiresome lack of forthrightness. Who is at the top of Stack Exchange, Inc.? Who wrote the post? Obviously you are involved in it.

Casting aspersions on motivations: because this offer was made to other professional communities, it is somehow not genuine to the math community?

Again, when motivations are unclear, I would like to be able to ask questions about them. I am not sure that I did cast aspersions, but I will be honest in my worry that this initiative is poorly thought out with respect to the math community. As I pointed out, the same person running the organization behind this initiative has in the past gone out of his way to profess his ineptitude and disdain for mathematics, which is something that no professional mathematician wants to hear a benefactor say. (Note that I did not claim that Jeff Atwood is mathematically inept. I have no personal knowledge of him whatsoever but nevertheless I believe his remarks to this effect are gross exaggerations. Reason: he is a more than competent computer programmer, which does not correlate well with mathematical ineptness. But my point is that someone who professes to be mathematically inept is not an ideal sponsor for a math initiative.)

These were deeply unconstructive comments -- bordering on mean-spirited -- and I will continue to remove similar deeply unconstructive comments on any meta posts that I start about Stack Exchange initiatives to support the Stack Exchange community.

Again, the problem is that very few if any other people have come forward to agree with that, whereas others have made comments to the contrary. In the absence of that, it seems that "unconstructive" means "What Jeff Atwood doesn't like", which is unacceptable to me as a partipicant on this site.

That is why I removed those comments as non-constructive to that post. I also invited Pete Clark to reformulate his comments in a more constructive way, perhaps as an answer that could be voted on -- multiple times, actually. With no luck.

It's not a matter of luck. You removed my comments without any justification and without even admitting that you did so. You had the ability to copy them into an answer and explain what you found problematic about them but chose not to do so and be very coy about the reasons for removal. When my speech is unilaterally removed without justification, I am not simply going to post it again in a form which I hope which will be "less offensive" (note: a direct quote!) to the site censor. That's not the way I do business.

If Mr. Clark,

If anyone reading this message by any chance happens to be concerned about referring to people by their proper titles, I might recommend "Dr. Clark" or "Professor Clark" as more respectful.

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    $\begingroup$ @Pete: please reconsider, especially in view of the statement by Jeff below that he will only moderate on threads initiated by StackExchange. You can always just ignore those threads on Meta. $\endgroup$ – Willie Wong Apr 17 '11 at 23:11
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    $\begingroup$ as Akhil said in his response here: "That's [the criticism that Pete Clark bringing up "Jeff Atwood" in his comments is an irrelevant, ad-hominem distraction] fair enough, so you could have simply pointed that out politely." Unfortunately, just 'pointing it out politely' is a derailment. The proper thing to do is open another question on the topic, but I wasn't comfortable copying your comments out and creating a question on your behalf out of them. $\endgroup$ – Jeff Atwood Apr 18 '11 at 2:51
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    $\begingroup$ If pointing it out is a derailment, ignoring it is another option. You could also have simply emailed Dr. Clark to discuss the matter privately. $\endgroup$ – Carl Mummert Apr 18 '11 at 3:11
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    $\begingroup$ +1 To Willie's comment. I hope you reconsider. $\endgroup$ – Aryabhata Apr 18 '11 at 3:16
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    $\begingroup$ @carl you can't "ignore" a traffic accident -- people will rubberneck, cause traffic delays, and potentially cause other accidents in the process. That is simply not a viable strategy. (Also, Dr. Clark has specifically emailed me in the past to indicate my emails are unwanted, so that wasn't an option available to me. There's a "prior relationship" here, you might say.) $\endgroup$ – Jeff Atwood Apr 18 '11 at 3:21
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    $\begingroup$ If there is a prior relationship, that is further reason for you to have refrained from taking actions to moderate the comments yourself, instead of letting one of our community moderators handle it. $\endgroup$ – Carl Mummert Apr 18 '11 at 3:24
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    $\begingroup$ @Jeff: Dear Jeff, I have upvoted @Carl Mummert's comments. I strongly disagree with your claim that "Unfortunately, just 'pointing it out politely' is a derailment." You speak as though Dr. Clark is spamming the website, not posting thoughtful remarks that you simply happen not to like. I myself have always tried to adopt that procedure even in cases of borderline insults. $\endgroup$ – Akhil Mathew Apr 18 '11 at 3:29
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    $\begingroup$ @Jeff: In addition, I don't think any of Dr. Clark's comments were ad hominem distractions. What I did claim is that I would have had no objections if you attempted to distance yourself personally from the conference. (Who is sponsoring a speaker really does matter. If the Institute for Creation Research claims to be sponsoring a biologist, something is very wrong. So Dr. Clark's concerns seem legitimate to me.) $\endgroup$ – Akhil Mathew Apr 18 '11 at 3:35
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    $\begingroup$ @Akhil In my opinion any remarks containing such ad-hominem content should not be called "thoughtful" - whether or not they have other constructive content. Frankly I am shocked that many folks are attempting to defend such ad-hominem remarks. As Jeff said, there is a prior history at the source of these flames. Mr. Clark could have left constructive criticism without fanning the prior flames by appending the ad-hominem content. Mr. Clark's assumption that this did not offend anyone is completely wrong. I've heard privately from over 10 respected members who strongly think otherwise. $\endgroup$ – Bill Dubuque Apr 18 '11 at 3:45
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    $\begingroup$ @Jeff: As I have already said, in a forum of adults (especially professional mathematicians) interacting as equals, the way to handle comments that might be better suited for answers is not to delete them; it is to politely request it. That is a matter of taste; Dr. Clark might have well preferred to post his remarks as comments. Brian Conrad, one of the world's pre-eminent number theorists, has posted many highly nontrivial observations as cryptic comments on MathOverflow. That's OK. I would strongly encourage showing more tolerance towards people's preferences. $\endgroup$ – Akhil Mathew Apr 18 '11 at 4:02
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    $\begingroup$ @Bill: I'm very confused as to how the comments could have been offensive. But if you, or these other people you mention, would explain that to me, I am all ears. The only part that was critical of a person was Dr. Clark's quoting Mr. Atwood's own claims about his mathematical ability (and Dr. Clark has even said he doubts those claims). $\endgroup$ – Akhil Mathew Apr 18 '11 at 4:04
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    $\begingroup$ @Bill: I definitely recall Mr. Atwood's having made such remarks in the past; I'm not inclined to track them down. $\endgroup$ – Akhil Mathew Apr 18 '11 at 4:35
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    $\begingroup$ @Bill: See the link added in the recent edit of this answer. $\endgroup$ – Hendrik Vogt Apr 18 '11 at 11:36
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    $\begingroup$ @Pete L. Clark, just for the record, I feel about your comments exactly the way @Jeff felt. I love this site and I am very grateful for all the contributors, people who ask and especially who answer, but your comments could be interpreted as hurtful. I would not have deleted them if I had the powers, but I understand perfecly why @Jeff did. $\endgroup$ – mpiktas Apr 18 '11 at 14:17
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    $\begingroup$ @Pete As a random unknown voice of the masses, I feel sad to see you leave. I can really see it from both sides---your side perhaps a little more so, but I can also understand how Jeff feels. Is there really no way through this unfortunate series of events? I would hope to see you return some time in the future. $\endgroup$ – Glen Wheeler Apr 18 '11 at 21:22
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One thing that has been overlooked is that two comments were removed. The first of them has received essentially all the discussion so far. The second one has not been discussed much. If I am quoting it correctly from above, the second removed comment said

@all: I scratched my head for a good while about this, and then I googled a little and saw that Jeff Atwood has left basically the same message at many other SE sites. Perhaps that information will be relevant to you if you're wondering how well thought out this is relative to the math.SE community in particular.

That comment is not offensive nor ad hominem. I find it very constructive for the purpose of having members of this community evaluate the question. I also scratched my head for a while when I read the question.

If this comment was still been in place when I first saw the question, it would have saved me quite a bit of time wondering why the proposal seemed to be so at odds with the way mathematics conferences run. After seeing the comment quoted here and verifying the same question had also gone to other projects, such as cooking, I understood much better what was going on.

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    $\begingroup$ I completely agree, I've also been scratching my head. $\endgroup$ – Hendrik Vogt Apr 18 '11 at 14:20
  • $\begingroup$ Hope you dont mind my edit. I helps me and maybe others to put the right stresses in the first sentence. $\endgroup$ – Rasmus Apr 18 '11 at 15:37
  • $\begingroup$ No worries, thanks for doing it. $\endgroup$ – Carl Mummert Apr 18 '11 at 16:01
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    $\begingroup$ I don't object to your reformulation of the comment, as seen on the actual question. @Hendrik also indicated in a comment "I would have said the same, perhaps reformulated" which I think is the crux of the matter here. $\endgroup$ – Jeff Atwood Apr 21 '11 at 22:39
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    $\begingroup$ @Jeff: It is not your appropriate role to approve or reject comments, though. That is the role of our community moderators. In this answer, I am saying that the the second comment you removed was not even unconstructive, much less objectionable. $\endgroup$ – Carl Mummert Apr 22 '11 at 0:47
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    $\begingroup$ @carl we will have to agree to disagree on this one, along with many others in this thread on both sides of the issue. I don't think there's any value in going over and over it ad nauseam at this point. $\endgroup$ – Jeff Atwood Apr 22 '11 at 3:41
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Dear Jeff Atwood,

Removing something as "hurtful to the community" is, I think, quite Orwellian in the latitude it gives to the flagger and moderator; restricting to the classical standards of "spam or offensive" seems a better policy to me. But let me address your points:

The extraordinarily rude tone of "not to rub it in, but your community is not good enough to attend a conference." Any time something is prefaced with "not to rub it in", I think that's a pretty good sign that what follows ... isn't going to be particularly constructive.

I find it very difficult to interpret Dr. Clark's comments as saying that. For one thing, Dr. Clark participates here very regularly, almost exclusively to help other people out by posting answers, so it is as much his community as it is anyone else's. Nor is saying that math.SE isn't the flagship of internet research mathematics demeaning to the community. I think most of us were very clear at the outset that we didn't want to be another MO.

I am not relevant here; as you brought up correctly multiple times the math.se community itself has little to nothing to do with me. Therefore, when Pete Clark brings up "Jeff Atwood" in his comments, it is as an irrelevant, ad-hominem distraction -- by the very definition of your own post! The speaking sponsorships are between you guys/gals and the math. I'm irrelevant -- and even if I wasn't, Stack Exchange, Inc. is sponsoring the speaking initiative, not me personally.

That's fair enough, so you could have simply pointed that out politely. Dr. Clark's observation, I think, is that mathematics websites are presumably expected to be led by mathematicians (just as the head of Dr. Clark's department is presumably not a biologist), and consequently math.SE may not (as compared to MO, which is run by mathematicians) represent the mathematical community. This seems to me a reasonable concern (and certainly in no way off-topic), which you could have addressed instead of deleting the comment.

Casting aspersions on motivations: because this offer was made to other professional communities, it is somehow not genuine to the math community?

Ummm...again, I think you're misreading the comment? Dr. Clark was trying to observe that the plan was not necessarily well-thought-out for the mathematics community. I don't think Dr. Clark is insinuating that there is some dark scheme behind the plan, or that the motivations for the sponsorship would be anything besides promoting this website. Here's an analogy: suppose I want to propose a given project (or family of projects, not quite all the same), and I do it for several different programming languages, on a family of different boards. It would be perfectly on-topic and reasonable for the C# programmers to point out, "Hey, this is identical to what was proposed on the Haskell forum -- is it clear that this has really been thought out in any manner specific to C#?"

I am also surprised that Jeff Atwood is enforcing these standards (and, more generally, assuming the duties of a moderator) on the present website, of which he is not an active contributor (that is, mathematically), when there are probably bigger issues (i.e., on meta.SO) to take care of, where his role might be more useful. The president of the U.S. does not participate in a local board meeting.

That's puzzling, since the speaker's bureau post is one that is specifically an initiative of Stack Exchange, Inc to support Stack Exchange communities, and it is why I posted on meta at all. This is like criticizing the president for following up with a state on the specifics of a federal grant program to a state. It's nonsensical.

I think I may not have been clear in the statement. As far as I am concerned, at least, you are welcome to leave comments on meta all you want. What I object to is the exercise of ex officio moderator power (especially without notifications given to the website moderators---we only learned about this from Dr. Clark himself until you sent the email). Even if the president gives an occasional speech at a local board, she does not take attendance, let alone reprimand other members for speaking out of turn.

You will notice that I posted this as an open thread instead of contacting you privately. Had it been Qiaochu or Willie that had done this, I would have much preferred not to have this all over meta, and instead try to sort it out privately.

Allowing such unconstructive comments to stand on the thread -- or worse, responding to them there -- would be a massive derailment. "Take it outside." You can see a similar derailment happening on the comments to above question, by the way. That is what moderation is.

I don't understand this. If, as you admit, the comments would have been fine by your standards as an answer (possibly reworded), what's wrong with them as a comment? As we saw in the above question, Willie Wong asked the users whose discussion was leading to a comment thread not germane to the present thread to start a new one. He did not summarily delete them. In any event, Dr. Clark's comments were entirely germane to the thread in question.

These were deeply unconstructive comments -- bordering on mean-spirited -- and I will continue to remove similar deeply unconstructive comments on any meta posts that I start about Stack Exchange initiatives to support the Stack Exchange community.

As long as this policy of removing merely "unconstructive" (as opposed to offensive or spam) comments remains in effect, I shall not, on principle, participate in any such threads to which it is applied. I hope that this policy will be restricted to threads initiated by you on the meta website.

Let me, finally, note the following. Math.SE is, compared to SO, a fairly small website. By the nature of the subject, and by nature of the level, there are not many people in this world who can answer questions about algebraic number theory the way Pete Clark can. (This would be true with Dr. Clark replaced by any other professional mathematician and algebraic number theory by one of her research interests.) There is a reason mathematicians--who in real life are college professors--expect to be treated with a certain respect; they have worked extremely hard, and succeeded in a very competitive world, to get where they are. They are also extremely busy people, and if they participate on an internet forum, it is likely to be out of a sense of generosity (or procrastination), not out of any deep attachment. If they see their comments made in good faith deleted, especially by a moderator that is not involved in the mathematical world, they will not hesitate to leave, and the website will suffer. I highly recommend against driving away mathematicians from this website.

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    $\begingroup$ +1 for «(or procrastination)» :) $\endgroup$ – Mariano Suárez-Álvarez Apr 17 '11 at 23:22
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    $\begingroup$ "If, as you admit, the comments would have been fine by your standards as an answer (possibly reworded), what's wrong with them as a comment?" It is impossible for anyone to "reword" a comment outside the 5 minute grace period. In general, comments are are not afforded the full protection of actual answers or questions. Sometimes questionable comments are also left as a form of protest, in that they cannot be downvoted. In this case I felt there was nothing of value left after removing the non-constructive ad-hominem parts of the comments. $\endgroup$ – Jeff Atwood Apr 18 '11 at 2:42
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    $\begingroup$ @Jeff: Dear Jeff, if you thought that the comments were inappropriate (and I don't agree with this assessment), then moderators can edit them to "clean them up" -- there is no five-minute restriction for us. I still do not understand your claim that there was "nothing of value" in them; even if that were true, it would have at least been courteous to offer Dr. Clark an explanation. It is quite disrespectful to the author simply to remove them without a trace. $\endgroup$ – Akhil Mathew Apr 18 '11 at 3:25
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    $\begingroup$ @akhil so I should have rewritten his comments entirely? Do you think Dr. Clark would be comfortable with that? I think it's best if we open a real meta question (or answer, at least) with what appears to be the root of Dr. Clark's concern -- "Is the Stack Exchange organization no longer credible in the worldwide math community due to Jeff Atwood?" this is something I've urged him to do at least 4 distinct times now, to no effect. $\endgroup$ – Jeff Atwood Apr 18 '11 at 3:46
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    $\begingroup$ @Jeff: Dear Jeff, no I don't think that would be ideal. I would have probably objected to this (if I found out about it). As I said, leaving the comments up, and politely responding to them (if you objected) seems to me by far the optimal approach. But, given a choice between deleting them outright or editing them, the latter seems at least the lesser of two evils -- even if it is one that I remain comfortable with. Also, I highly doubt that the worldwide math community knows about math.SE (I've met well-regarded mathematicians who haven't heard of MO). $\endgroup$ – Akhil Mathew Apr 18 '11 at 3:57
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    $\begingroup$ @akhil in my many years of community moderation experience, such radical edits would cause much more distress than simple removal. We will have to agree to disagree on this. However, I do agree completely that I am irrelevant, in fact that's the crux of my criticism of Dr. Clark's comments -- they center on irrelevancies (me) and do not CONSTRUCTIVELY advance the question topic of sponsoring math.se speakers. If you want to attack the topic, and say SE, Inc sponsoring anyone from math.se is a horrible, broken idea, fine -- just open it as a different question. $\endgroup$ – Jeff Atwood Apr 18 '11 at 4:03
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    $\begingroup$ @Jeff: I'm afraid we're arguing past each other here. I would not have any objections if you requested Dr. Clark to open it as a separate thread. I don't even think this is the issue; I am sure Dr. Clark would not be offended. The problem is the deletion. The remarks were related to the topic of the thread, and if you preferred them elsewhere, you could simply have asked him to move them. That is very different from jumping to the moderator toolkit. This may be a SO-MSE culture thing... $\endgroup$ – Akhil Mathew Apr 18 '11 at 4:12
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    $\begingroup$ @akhil those comments are no more related to the question than if you asked me, "what are your ideas for the advancement of math at Harvard?" and I said to you "well, I think Harvard should be abolished as an institution." I guess we'll have to agree to disagree on this as well. (Note that I don't oppose asking "Should we abolish Harvard?" but merely that it is in no way, shape, or form constructive feedback for the question as asked.) $\endgroup$ – Jeff Atwood Apr 18 '11 at 4:15
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    $\begingroup$ @Jeff: I simply don't think that's a fair comparison. You were asking a question about sponsoring a speaker, and Dr. Clark quite reasonably interpreted it as a discussion of how to do it. He essentially opined that the idea was ill-considered and possibly not the best fit for the website, for the reasons he listed. Your comparison would be more apt if he had suggested, say, deleting this website. It would be very surprising to me if such opinions as he expressed were off-topic for a discussion of an idea that was not clearly specified. $\endgroup$ – Akhil Mathew Apr 18 '11 at 4:19
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    $\begingroup$ @akhil fine; perhaps the more apt comparison is "There's no point in supporting Math at Harvard, because the dean is an embarrassment." At any rate, we will have to agree to disagree on this, and as you can see, I'm not alone. $\endgroup$ – Jeff Atwood Apr 18 '11 at 4:21
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    $\begingroup$ @Jeff: OK. It seems that we have reached an impasse; I'll try to formulate some sort of compromise to suggest tomorrow. $\endgroup$ – Akhil Mathew Apr 18 '11 at 4:36
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We have active community-elected moderators, so I don't see why it should be necessary for non-elected moderators to remove comments from threads on meta.math.SE. This is particularly true for threads that were not started by community members, such as threads on Stack Exchange Inc. initiatives that do not originate within the math.se community.

  • There is value in being able to discuss such threads freely, and free discussion includes the ability to criticize proposals instead of agreeing with them. The comments that were removed were civil, and no more strongly worded than a speech in a department meeting might be.

  • No moderator should remove comments as "unconstructive" on a thread that they have personally started. Doing so appears to be a conflict of interest to me, for any sort of thread.

Thus I feel that the threads Jeff Atwood has said he may moderate in the future are exactly the threads that he should not moderate. If there are actually nonconstructive comments on these threads, an internal community-elected moderator should resolve the matter.

Any appearance of heavy-handed or top-down administration will simply turn off users here rather than accomplishing positive results. Mathematicians are, by and large, not receptive to the sort of management techniques that might work in the private sector.

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    $\begingroup$ +1: The issue of conflict of interest seems to be at the very heart of this ongoing discussion. $\endgroup$ – David Kohler May 1 '11 at 18:02
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It is a bit sad to see highly intelligent people squabbling over minor details. As all the contributors of this site care a lot about mathematics, so @Jeff Atwood cares a lot about SE in general. The original comments were hurtful and their deletion was questionable. Why can both parties cannot come to some compromise and move on?

When conveying ideas in text sometimes the result can have different emotional result than originally intended, and I think this what happened in this case.

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    $\begingroup$ Well, because Jeff Atwood has a history of unilaterally doing things, on this and other SE websites, against the consensus of the community that actually uses the site. This repeatedly frustrating behaviour pattern appears to be not a "minor detail" any more. See the last two paragraphs of the 'question'. $\endgroup$ – ShreevatsaR Apr 20 '11 at 13:32
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    $\begingroup$ @ShreevatsaR, sometimes unilateral action is needed and is beneficial to community in the long run. I read all the question and all the answers, and read all the related material, before posting my answer. There is a pattern of behaviour, but I do not see it as frustrating or damaging. And I still maintain that this incident is minor due to the reasons I laid out in my last paragraph. $\endgroup$ – mpiktas Apr 20 '11 at 14:15
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    $\begingroup$ To claim that action by Atwood contrary to the community's wishes is sometimes needed is to argue that the community's own moderators are incapable doing a good job and some outsider is necessary, and I don't think this is true. Further I cannot recall a single instance where one of Atwood's actions against the community's consensus was beneficial in the long run: in every case it seems to have led to further friction and been detrimental to the community. I cannot imagine how this instance which has resulted in the departure of two valued contributors, can be considered beneficial in any way. $\endgroup$ – ShreevatsaR Apr 23 '11 at 15:49
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    $\begingroup$ The point here is not merely that comments were deleted, but that Jeff Atwood deleted them in a thread in which he had clear conflict of interest, and by himself instead of asking a math.SE moderator to look into it (despite having been asked several times by the community not to interfere in this heavy-handed manner). It is standard moderation practice when personal feelings are involved to recuse oneself from moderation and ask for another moderator's opinion. $\endgroup$ – ShreevatsaR Apr 23 '11 at 15:51
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    $\begingroup$ @shree the example is contrived; the post was about a SE, Inc initiative to support the math community. I am irrelevant to that initiative (except as the messenger), so there is no conflict of interest. Standard "discuss the message, not the messenger" moderation. I understand you may be upset about previous decisions based on prior history, e.g. goo.gl/UrmXS, but there's no reason to engage in axe-grinding. Perhaps you should recuse yourself from this discussion based on a conflict of interest? :) $\endgroup$ – Jeff Atwood Jun 5 '11 at 19:07
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    $\begingroup$ @Jeff: No man, upset with your unilateral action (not just here, admittedly :-)). The conflict of interest isn't with the "initiative", but with the deleted comments: you had a prior history with the poster, and you construed them as attacking you. Anyway, the only thing that matters is: do you promise not to unilaterally undertake any moderation action on communities you're not a major contributor to, and ask another actual moderator to look into it, unless something is actually flagged by users? As long as the answer is "No", no community can feel secure with a whimsical outsider overlord. $\endgroup$ – ShreevatsaR Jun 5 '11 at 19:38
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    $\begingroup$ @shree I construed them as being unconstructive, ad-hominem comments barely related to the post, which was about a speaking initiative program. For example if I left a comment on this post stating "it may be of interest for everyone reading this to know that mpiktas is someone with a self-professed ineptitude for mathematics and documented exasperation with mathematicians" -- it'd be removed under the same conditions. Again: discuss the message, not the messenger. $\endgroup$ – Jeff Atwood Jun 5 '11 at 19:47
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    $\begingroup$ @Jeff: I hope it was clear: I'm not defending the comments that were deleted. The point is that a single person shouldn't decide whether something is constructive or not, especially when it concerns him. If it's obviously unconstructive, another moderator (asked to look into it) can take the decision just as fine. That way there will be checks and balances, etc. It's not about this particular act; see last 2 paragraphs of Akhil's question. The result would probably have been more or less the same, with less bitterness all round. $\endgroup$ – ShreevatsaR Jun 5 '11 at 20:01
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    $\begingroup$ @shree That question did not concern me, which is entirely the point. If it was a question titled "Are speaking initiatives sponsored by Stack Exchange credible mathematically since Jeff Atwood is not credible mathematically and he is associated with Stack Exchange", then I might agree with you. But it did not, and I don't. Unconstrictive derailment will be moderated away unapologetically and without hesitation. $\endgroup$ – Jeff Atwood Jun 5 '11 at 20:16
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    $\begingroup$ @Jeff: You deleted a comment about you. (That the question did not concern you is/was your basis for deciding that the comment was unconstructive, and that's fine, but I don't know why you keep repeating it since what's being discussed is not whether the comments were constructive.) You skirt around this without acknowledging that a pattern of such interference has been and can continue to be detrimental to the community. Anyway, it appears we have both several times said what we were going to say, so further discussion here is indeed clearly unconstructive; I'll stop. :-) $\endgroup$ – ShreevatsaR Jun 5 '11 at 20:43
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    $\begingroup$ @shree it might be detrimental to those members of the community who are more interested in drama than mathematics, perhaps. This is like arguing the judge on a trial cannot preside over that trial because a lawyer decided to randomly attack the credibility of the judge. It is a nonsensical claim. I was not the subject of the question, nor does arbitrarily trying to make me the subject of the question preclude me from moderating on that question. $\endgroup$ – Jeff Atwood Jun 5 '11 at 21:07
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Offensiveness, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder, so if Jeff finds it offensive, then Pete did cross some line. And it is easy to see what line was crossed: if someone makes some self-deprecatory remarks, that is not an invitation to amplify them to another audience. So Jeff is right here.

Jeff has talked of the comments as being "deeply non-constructive". Jeff asked for a list of conferences that might be appropriate for funding, Pete raised a very cogent point about a problem such lists of conferences might have if they do not take into account the interests of research mathematicians. Any discussion of appropriate conferences to sponsor that did not take Pete's point into account would be badly flawed. Is this cogency consistent with Jeff's overall evaluation of the comments? I do not think so; I think this is wounded pride speaking.

There's a point of protocol here. Precisely because of entirely reasonable issues of pride, many online communities ask for administrators to recuse themselves from executing their moderator functions on issues that affect them personally in this way. Would it have been better if Jeff had emailed Akhil and Robert Cartaino, expressed his concerns, and asked them to decide together what should be done, recommending deletion?

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    $\begingroup$ "Precisely because of entirely reasonable issues of pride, many online communities ask for administrators to recuse themselves from executing their moderator functions on issues that affect them personally in this way." - i.e., one good reason for having more than one mod/admin is that it's a way to avoid "conflict of interest" issues, assuming that there is no collusion among mods/admins. $\endgroup$ – J. M. is a poor mathematician Apr 18 '11 at 8:52
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    $\begingroup$ I don't actually care about the amplification of self-deprecatory remarks even a little. What I do find utterly absurd is the idea that someone at a mathematical conference -- ANY mathematical conference -- would say "Wait, you're from Math Stack Exchange? The site associated with Jeff Atwood, who has a self-professed ineptitude for mathematics and documented exasperation with mathematicians? No thanks!" Is my effect on the world-wide math community really that profound? Is this a credible, realistic concern? $\endgroup$ – Jeff Atwood Apr 18 '11 at 10:43
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    $\begingroup$ and for my part, I would say if you aren't exasperated with mathematicians, you simply haven't met enough of them yet. But I would also say the same of programmers. :) $\endgroup$ – Jeff Atwood Apr 18 '11 at 10:51
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    $\begingroup$ I see I made a small mistake here. I found a comment by Bill Dubuque posted just now to be in very poor taste; it was flagged by one other person. I did not wish to unilaterally delete it, though, so I flagged it myself; if enough other users felt that way, I assumed that the software would remove it. It seems that when a moderator flags a comment, however, it is permanent. My apologies to Mr. Dubuque for the inadvertent deletion. $\endgroup$ – Akhil Mathew Apr 18 '11 at 14:21
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    $\begingroup$ @Charles There are Math.SE members who found Pete L. Clark's comments offensive. So it may well be the case the the comments were flagged as offensive when they were removed. Be aware that this is part of longstanding feud Mr. Clark has here with Mr. Atwood. My advice to Mr. Clark is to try harder to live-up to his frequent promises to try harder to stick to mathematics and not to matters of opinion $\endgroup$ – Bill Dubuque Apr 18 '11 at 14:24
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    $\begingroup$ @Bill - Your repeated use of the appellation "Mr. Clark", including on the post where he explicitly asks people to not do so, and when everyone else in the discussion is using "Pete" or "Dr. Clark", leads me to conclude that this is intentional. $\endgroup$ – Zev Chonoles Apr 18 '11 at 14:38
  • $\begingroup$ @Zev Answered by email since it has more to do with matters on other math sites. $\endgroup$ – Bill Dubuque Apr 18 '11 at 15:17
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I felt very strongly, and I still feel very strongly, that these are deeply unconstructive comments to leave on that post -- to the point that they are actively hurtful to the community and the speaking initiative.

Why?

  1. The extraordinarily rude tone of "not to rub it in, but your community is not good enough to attend a conference." Any time something is prefaced with "not to rub it in", I think that's a pretty good sign that what follows ... isn't going to be particularly constructive.

  2. I am not relevant here; as you brought up correctly multiple times the math.se community itself has little to nothing to do with me. Therefore, when Pete Clark brings up "Jeff Atwood" in his comments, it is as an irrelevant, ad-hominem distraction -- by the very definition of your own post! The speaking sponsorships are between you guys/gals and the math. I'm irrelevant -- and even if I wasn't, Stack Exchange, Inc. is sponsoring the speaking initiative, not me personally.

  3. Casting aspersions on motivations: because this offer was made to other professional communities, it is somehow not genuine to the math community?

That is why I removed those comments as non-constructive to that post. I also invited Pete Clark to reformulate his comments in a more constructive way, perhaps as an answer that could be voted on -- multiple times, actually. With no luck.

I stand behind my removal of these comments as non-constructive 100%.

(Now, I do agree with the criticism that the comments aren't offensive; that was the default text for comment flag guidance which I reflexively cited the copy for. The golden rule has always been "is this comment constructive to the post?" and the comment flag guidance has been updated to reflect that.)

Answering more specifics:

I am also surprised that Jeff Atwood is enforcing these standards (and, more generally, assuming the duties of a moderator) on the present website, of which he is not an active contributor (that is, mathematically), when there are probably bigger issues (i.e., on meta.SO) to take care of, where his role might be more useful. The president of the U.S. does not participate in a local board meeting.

That's puzzling, since the speaker's bureau post is one that is specifically an initiative of Stack Exchange, Inc to support Stack Exchange communities, and it is why I posted on meta at all. This is like criticizing the president for following up with a state on the specifics of a federal grant program to a state. It's nonsensical.

Mr. Atwood apparently (according to an email he sent us) thinks that this is somehow critical of the community; if it is, then he simply could have responded in kind, rather than effacing it from the thread.

Allowing such unconstructive comments to stand on the thread -- or worse, responding to them there -- would be a massive derailment. "Take it outside." You can see a similar derailment happening on the comments to above question, by the way. That is what moderation is.

It seems that now, he has chosen to ignore his own theory of moderation and unilaterally remove thoughtful comments.

These were deeply unconstructive comments -- bordering on mean-spirited -- and I will continue to remove similar deeply unconstructive comments on any meta posts that I start about Stack Exchange initiatives to support the Stack Exchange community.

If Dr. Clark, or anyone else, would like to reformulate those deeply unconstructive comments into something resembling a constructive answer to the question, they are welcome to do so.

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    $\begingroup$ @Jeff: thanks for taking the time to respond. One question (to check if I am reading too much into what you wrote): near the bottom you wrote "I will continue to remove similar deeply unconstructive comments on any meta posts that I start about Stack Exchange initiatives to support the Stack Exchange community." Does that mean you will restrict these kinds of active moderation to threads started by you (or other StackExchange rep) with focus on StackExchange initiatives? $\endgroup$ – Willie Wong Apr 17 '11 at 22:31
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    $\begingroup$ @willie correct. $\endgroup$ – Jeff Atwood Apr 17 '11 at 22:42
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    $\begingroup$ I honestly cannot imagine from what sensible angle those comments can be seen as deeply unconstructive, let alone mean-spirited. Even if they were, I really cannot understand the stance of deleting them. At the very least, consult the moderators that the community itself chose before taking such actions---this may sound harsh, but in this particular community you are only some kind of deux ex machina with überpowers, and powers do not grant trust, respect nor authority. $\endgroup$ – Mariano Suárez-Álvarez Apr 17 '11 at 22:55
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    $\begingroup$ @Jeff: Dear Jeff, thank you for your response. I felt it best to respond further by posting my own answer rather than commenting at length here, so I have done that. $\endgroup$ – Akhil Mathew Apr 17 '11 at 23:05
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    $\begingroup$ Hmm, I may actually see a way out here, based on Willie's question. In my view it is not necessarily appropriate to use the meta.math.SE site as a place to advertise initiatives launched by Stack Exchange, Inc.: all parties involved seem to be converging to agreement that SE Inc. is not (or should not!) be part of the "math.SE community". As a result, such posts have at the very least a different status than posts by community members. Moreover, if you don't want discussion -- including critical discussion -- of something, then don't post it as a question... $\endgroup$ – Pete L. Clark Apr 17 '11 at 23:09
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    $\begingroup$ If instead of posting such SE Inc. related announcements on the meta site, they were posted somewhere else -- and possibly advertised by banners or whatever on meta.math.SE or math.SE, as seems reasonable -- and Mr. Atwood would agree not to singlehandedly determine what is "constructive" for actual meta.math.SE and math.SE questions...then I might just be satisfied. It would certainly be a big step in the right direction. $\endgroup$ – Pete L. Clark Apr 17 '11 at 23:11
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    $\begingroup$ @Pete would you argue that the University of Georgia should not be part of the math department of the University of Georgia? We are a part of the math.se community in roughly the same capacity that the math department is a part of the University of Georgia. Therefore what you propose makes little sense to me. Do math departments secede from the universities they are a part of? $\endgroup$ – Jeff Atwood Apr 18 '11 at 1:09
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    $\begingroup$ @Jeff: departments don't secede from universities but universities don't take over departmental discussions when suggesting a new project. Instead, universities invite departments to separate specific meetings that they lead. I think that's what @Pete was suggesting. $\endgroup$ – David Kohler May 1 '11 at 18:15
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    $\begingroup$ @david no, I don't think so, otherwise he certainly would have responded to my comment by now. $\endgroup$ – Jeff Atwood Jun 5 '11 at 18:55

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