Many new users do things that are contrary to the culture at MSE. They ...

  • ask in the imperative (often thanks to translate.google),
  • ask too often,
  • haven't "tried" anything (besides registering for an account),
  • don't accept answers,
  • don't accept hints, and
  • don't respond well when chastised for such actions.

Heck, maybe even starting this thread is such a transgression.

For users who don't "fit the mold" $*$ , is it appropriate to refer them somewhere else? If so, when?

( $*$ I know we're all math people, but let's not get carried away with the lack of definition here!)

To prevent a possible avalanche of "see this link" replies, I will list what I have seen:
that and
the other (amongst others).

It appears to me that we don't want to be doing homework, yet some users just want us to do their homework! Can we send them away, thus separating the wheat from the tares, or should we try to fit them into the mold? Would it be acceptable to make a "resource list" of other forums?

We aren't going to change people who are looking to be spoon-fed and/or refuse to conform to the status quo that we (well, my 500 rep might give me a .01% share in the company, so to speak) have created.

Maybe I'm letting my belief that MSE is dominated by an elitist attitude seep into my suggestions. And maybe this question will be the first step towards me changing my opinion!

I anticipate your replies.

Please extend me this courtesy, as I have put much thought and candor into this post, and frequent this site literally a dozen times a day (so I can accept suggestions post haste):
Consult me before editing this question

  • 13
    $\begingroup$ Retagging is not the same as "editing this question". The norm here is that we freely retag each others' questions. We edit questions mostly to fix LaTeX and for really badly formulated ones, mainly homework questions. So on the one hand there's no need to be angry, and on the other hand there's no need to explicitly ask other users not to edit your questions. $\endgroup$ Commented May 11, 2011 at 21:51
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    $\begingroup$ It says "edited 23 hours ago". I'm not angry ... I just appreciate the (perceived) purity of having a question in its original form. Not sure which "hand" that addresses, but I'll work on making better questions in the future! $\endgroup$ Commented May 12, 2011 at 13:22
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    $\begingroup$ @Chaz: Are there really users that never accept hints? $\endgroup$ Commented May 13, 2011 at 14:41

3 Answers 3


I personally believe that as a community, we are far too harsh to new users, and questions posed in that manner. (Although lately I think it has certainly improved) I would go so far to say that this elitist attitude is toxic. Being friendlier, more understanding and more constructive is always better, and referring them elsewhere is the wrong thing to do in my mind. (See this which is a similar post)

Edited (See Comments)

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    $\begingroup$ +1. Some time ago, I'd said that I no longer felt comfortable recommending this site to my friends and colleagues and, unfortunately (and despite the fact that I continue to be drawn to it), that hasn't changed. $\endgroup$
    – Isaac
    Commented May 11, 2011 at 23:20
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    $\begingroup$ @Theo: I have been fairly harsh several times myself, here is a specific example (see the first comment) math.stackexchange.com/questions/30343/… Only more recently, a little more then the last month, (which constitutes a third of my time here) have I realized that that was just not the right way to handle things. I mean, being nicer is just better all around. When only answering questions on this site, sometimes one can lose sight of how it feels to ask. $\endgroup$ Commented May 12, 2011 at 1:30
  • $\begingroup$ @Eric: Thanks for the clarification, that is certainly a very good point. $\endgroup$
    – t.b.
    Commented May 12, 2011 at 1:37
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    $\begingroup$ @Eric: can you link to the question from your friend that was closed? $\endgroup$ Commented May 12, 2011 at 2:16
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    $\begingroup$ What??? Being nice on the Internet??? Never!!! $\endgroup$
    – GEdgar
    Commented May 12, 2011 at 13:54
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    $\begingroup$ can you cite the specific post your friend posted so we can see if it was closed inappropriately or not? Hard to react without concrete examples to refer to.. $\endgroup$ Commented May 13, 2011 at 4:05
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    $\begingroup$ @Jeff, @Qiaochu: Hmmmm. It is important to note that my previous comment was basely only on a conversation in the "real world." They told me it was closed, etc, and they the site sucked etc. I thought this was a bit shocking, and posted the answer above. Now, after asking their user name, and looking up the post there are two very strange things (which is why I removed the second paragraph from my answer): Firstly, they definitely did not stop using MSE, and I think they like it now. Second, I think their question was closed for suitable reasons.... (and, no I won't post the link) $\endgroup$ Commented May 13, 2011 at 14:21
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    $\begingroup$ (Continued) Honestly, I have no idea what to conclude from this. Despite an initial bad reaction, it worked out well in the end... very strange, I don't understand it, perhaps I should take a psychology course. Also, maybe I am just wrong about the need to be more polite... but I still think it is better. $\endgroup$ Commented May 13, 2011 at 14:24
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    $\begingroup$ @eric personally I would phrase this as "we should never be rude and always be civil". But being nice should not be expanded in scope to allowing off-topic or overtly low-quality content. $\endgroup$ Commented May 13, 2011 at 23:57

It's a matter of degree. One or two issues is completely understandable for a new user. If a user repeatedly fails to play by the rules, that's potential grounds for suspension (depending on the nature and, again, degree of the problem). As for referrals, I don't want to foist off extremely problematic users onto anyone else. If it's just a matter of culture clash, it's really not our responsibility to find another site more suited to a particular user's tastes.

  • $\begingroup$ What would your response to seeing an answer/comment such as "Maybe answers.yahoo would better suit your need for a quick answer" be? Are such suggestions prohibited, frowned-upon, just obnoxious??? $\endgroup$ Commented May 11, 2011 at 2:53
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    $\begingroup$ None of the above; I just don't see a need to encourage them. $\endgroup$ Commented May 11, 2011 at 3:57

This post is mostly speculated, but there are some postulates at the bottom.

Recently I discovered the "league" option/site/ranking and was quite amazed how many users with reputation $< 200$ there are. I have no idea (maybe some moderators/admins can answer this?), but I guess the statistics for users with reputation $<20$ stand off even more (geometric distributions are not uncommon in nature). The point I am trying to make is that there is (by my guess) a large number of users that ask just one question and disappear. It may be possible that most of them does not read the FAQ, or any etiquette related information, they logged in precisely to ask that one precise question they had in mind. What is the result?

Depending on the outcome, they might get their question answered, they keep in mind the site is useful, and will come back sometime again (why read the FAQ if the question had been answered?).

Also, the question might get down-voted, closed or whatever if they happen not to match in actual math.SE policy (BTW which is quite liberal). The question might get answered accidentally, but they probably won't come back (maybe someone could tell us the approximation of the complement?, i.e. the percent of people which gets their first question downvoted and still ask another question). Nevertheless, they didn't read the FAQ.

Of course there are other possibilities, but I would want to address these two, since, by my guess, it may be already a majority.

The question is how to make the newcomers read the FAQ (how many of you do read the license when installing a program that shows one)? Also pointing to the FAQ/discussions in the comments may not be that helpful, that means if the poster has attitude similar to "why do need I read a number of pages of text to ask just a single $ \$!\%\$\&@\$ $ question?"

Inlining (posting the text of) the relevant part of FAQ might be a better idea, as it is more convenient to read, and shows (in the eyes of the newcomer) that someone cares--they (the newcomers) might be more inclined to follow the rules (and maybe even to read the FAQ afterwards).

However, those are only the ad-hoc solutions and (let me just call it that for the lack of a better term) the wrong of asking the question before reading the FAQ have been done. What can we do with this?

  1. We do not do anything--the number of newcomers is low and we can handle the issue.
  2. We better stress the most important issues, so it is more convenient to be familiar with them (should I say it is less convenient to be unfamiliar with them?).
  3. We try to make question-asking process more guiding, e.g. if the reputation of the user is low, suggest the (homework) tag, or warn if the text does not contain the question mark symbol ? (there are other indicators of imperative style too).
  4. We test the most important issues, i.e. requiring correct answers to few simple questions to complete the registration process (we do test if someone is a human, don't we?).
  5. Introduce some kind of sandbox or (freshmen) tag.
  6. Introduce (hint) tag (for questions that explicitly do not ask for full answers)--personally I think this might be a good idea, have math.SE community ever tried this?
  7. ?

I am aware that some of the points feel insulting, but it might be possible to formulate/realize them in a respectful way--I think I would understand to be required to bear some nuisances if the reasons were explained. (Moreover, the privileges system is very similar--one would have a "privilege" to dismiss the guidance of the question-asking process.)

As I said at the beginning, this is a speculation. It would be very helpful to know the true statistics, then we could decide if the problem I described is a real issue or not. Secondly, it might be hard to realize some of the ideas without SE programmers support. Finally, that kind of actions may seriously influence the growth of the community, both negatively (hard registration process is discouraging) and positively (really nice community is encouraging).

I would appreciate your comments on this.


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