What is (and what should be) the purpose of math.SE?

As far as I can say, various users have different views on this question.

  • Some users view it as a repository of knowledge.
  • Some users approach it as teaching opportunity.
  • Similar to previous, but slightly different: It could be understood as some kind of help center for mathematical problems.
  • Some people might view it simply as a competition among the users.
  • There are probably many other possible different viewpoints. (Which might differ drastically or only in minor details.)

Various views are not mutually exclusive. For example, gamification is definitely an important part of the SE architecture. And even if reputation and badges should not be the main reason why some users come here, if they help to reinforce good use of the site (for example, if they incentivize users to ask good questions and write good answers), then that is fine. Similarly, if somebody comes here mainly because they like to teach mathematics and they strive to give very accessible and clear explanation in each of their answers, that also helps creating a repository of useful mathematical facts. But on some occasions there are clashes between users who have different views about what this site is/should be. Somewhat related point was mentioned also in this answer the the recent post: What do you think is the largest problem facing Math.SE today (July 2015)?

The view on what the purpose of the site is affect many things: What type of questions should be allowed? Which posts should I upvote? Which posts should be closed/deleted? To which extent is it ok to edit other people's questions? Is it ok to ask question simply because it adds some potentially useful contents rather than because it is a problem I have actually encountered? Which features could improve functionality of the site? And we could list here probably many other things.

The intention of this thread is not trying to find some kind of consensus among different (possibly conflicting) approaches to this site. I think that simply knowing how various users view this site could be useful. And I believe that meta is a good place where various opinions on this matter could be collected.


It is very likely that these issues have been discussed before on meta. (If not in a question devoted solely to this issue then in some comments.) If there is an exact duplicate and I simply did not notice it, perhaps this question can be closed. But we should keep in mind that this site evolves and the viewpoints might have changed since the past discussions.

I have found this older question which, however, seems to have a bit different focus: What is the purpose of math.se; to learn to provide nice answers or just to get them? (The OP asks about this in connection with the problem whether it is ok to post answer which is similar to the previous answer. And the main stress seems to be on difference between posting answer as somebody in order to teach somebody something and posting answer with the intention that I learn something while working on the answer.)

I have also found this post: Dissonance of purpose: What kind of site should MU be? Already from the number (id) of the post, you can see that it is from beginnings of the site. So I thinks that the positions might have changed since then.

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    Do we need a consensus on this? Or can we simply democratically decide about the site by upvoting questions and answers that agree with our own idea of the site, and downvoting questions and answers at odds with our own idea of the site? – GEdgar Nov 7 '15 at 17:45
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    @GEdgar: I think the point here is not to generate consensus or vote on this issue at all. The point is the bring this topic to the surface, and get to know a bit better how people view the purpose of this site, other than "useful procrastination". – Asaf Karagila Nov 7 '15 at 18:03
  • I find the way you present the quotes quite confusing. I knew who wrote the first and the second but still was mislead to believe they are from the same author (as I read as "this comment" referring to what is then quoted). This is especially unfortunate as the second quote changes its tone, being presented after the first. (The second is in my understanding much less about the people-aspect than it now looks.) – quid Nov 7 '15 at 18:20
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    @quid On second thought I have decided to remove them. (If somebody still wants to look at some older related discussions in comments, they can find the links in the original revision.) The quotes I copied were probably a bit distracting - the post is long enough even without them. – Martin Sleziak Nov 7 '15 at 18:29
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    @GEdgar I understand that by many actions we implicitly say what we want the posts on MSE to look like. (No only voting; also closing/reopening, deleting/undeleting, editing, commenting...) It is a natural process and I am fine with that. But I think that having some discussion about this might be useful. In fact, there were several exchanges in comments related to this. It is probably better to have a question devoted to this rather than to have several discussions scattered in comments to various posts which are primarily about different things. – Martin Sleziak Nov 7 '15 at 23:53
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    @GEdgar: The difference between democracy and anarchy is that we vote on how to work together rather than how to work apart. – Hurkyl Nov 8 '15 at 1:55
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    I can't look at the title of the question without seeing Terry Gilliam asking me three questions in order to ensure safe passage across the Bridge of Death. "(1) What is this site's name? (2) What is its purpose? (3) What is the capital of Assyria?" – Asaf Karagila Nov 8 '15 at 7:15
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    I just stumbled over meta.math.stackexchange.com/questions/9504/what-is-math-se which seems quite related. – quid Nov 9 '15 at 18:28
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    My understanding is: SE sites exists because some programmers are tired of answering same questions again and again. So they create a repository of Q/A pairs to allow them to stop answering same questions again. It works better than expected so they start other SE sites because it is cool and hopefully one day they can make some money out of this. This is not a charity services and please don't have any illusion math.SE is created for the benefit of math communities. Just enjoy the free lunch while it lasts. – achille hui Nov 10 '15 at 8:51
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    @quid It is indeed very similar. (And I would not object to closing this one as a duplicate.) But perhaps by leaving it open we could see to which extent the opinion has changed during the last two years. – Martin Sleziak Nov 12 '15 at 5:32
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    @GEdgar: I think that consensus is important. Besides voting you have the moderators, whose actions do frame the site. When using other SE sites, I've seen moderators do things that I would consider unacceptable here. So a consensus on what moderators should and shouldn't do is key, and it depends on the view the users have of the site. – Martin Argerami Nov 14 '15 at 14:30

The site is a Q&A site for mathematics. Its purpose is to provide answers to mathematical questions, both by directly responding to such questions as they get asked and by curating the thereby created content to allow interested individuals to (re)discover the information later on. The aim should be to maximize the utility of this resource.

To me, that's it. Everything else is a consequence, by-product, or afterthought. Let me go through the proposed list point by point.

Some users view it as a repository of knowledge.

The knowledge grows almost automatically over time. But, some structuring and weeding out is useful to make the fruits more accessible.

Some users approach it as teaching opportunity.

Often the questions are asked by users that want to learn something. Thus, answering them well, will usually teach them something. In this sense the site is a teaching opportunity.

Similar to previous, but slightly different: It could be understood as some kind of help center for mathematical problems.

In my understanding of what a "help center" would be, it is something this site is not. As to me a "help center" would mean that the needs of the questioner are analyzed and then they are "treated" according to this "diagnosis" and not along a question they brought up. It cannot be this, in an efficient way, as it is too focused on the questions and answers. Attempts to do this not rarely end in varied frustration.

I think there ought to be a somewhat clear and focused question that is to be answered. "I am totally lost when dealing with limits of trigonometric functions. Please can you help me and explain this?" is not a type of question that can be reasonably handle on this site, a help center could handle such a question.

Some people might view it simply as a competition among the users.

Personally, I would find it slightly silly, but more power to them, as long as they make a useful contribution and do not interfere with the purpose of the site.

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    As a comment on accessibility, there's the maxim "If users can't find it, it's not there." By some metric it is true that the knowledge grows automatically over time, but I assert that's not the right metric. But maybe it's still a good approximation; that point is nonobvious to me. – Hurkyl Nov 8 '15 at 3:00

I see this site mainly as an opportunity to help other users clarifying their mathematical doubts, and being helped by others in my own doubts, in an exchanging process. Normally, as a non mathematician and a non native English speaker, I only answer low-level questions. By reading questions and answers at the adequate level I improve my knowledge of Mathematics and English. I've done and will do this, as long as I get some pleasure from it.

I use this site as a way to find exercises to do to

  • help me stay in practice with basic skills and
  • try problems which are interesting and different from the ones I'm familiar with.

This program has been very instructive so far, and not only in the problem solving aspect. It has been great practice for developing clarity in writing since I am obligated to make my answers accessible to the asker and other readers (and not just myself). I hope my answers have helped others learn something as well.

To agree with quid's answer, it's incidental that my behavior is in line with the stated goals of the site.

I see this site as an opportunity to get to know and help others if you can. However, when I see homework questions posted and no work being done on it to have arrived at some concept that causes confusion - it greatly demoralizes/ makes me lose motivation to answer questions like that.

On the other hand, I can read topics about various mathematics and learn from replies, think along and improve the answer, find a flaw in the argumentation. Look up other posts made by people that shine with mathematical knowledge and learn consistently from their posts.

On a whole, this site, to me, provides the opportunity to learn and improve

A year late, but I would like to add my viewpoint (which may not be shared by others) to the list. I will present it in pairs to distinguish what I feel Math SE should be from what it should not be.

  1. As a repository

    • It should contain a collection of useful mathematical techniques and insights.

    • It should not end up being mostly a collection of answers to computational questions.

  2. As a discussion forum

    • It is a place where people can engage in serious inquiry about mathematics.

    • It is not a place to push subjective viewpoints onto others.

  3. As a learning environment

    • It is a place to learn mathematics in a focused way via specific thoughtful inquiries.

    • It is not a place for students to continually ask questions without thinking.

  4. As a teaching platform

    • It is a place to contribute conceptual insights to guide the asker and future readers.

    • It is not a place to give mechanical solutions that take away the learning opportunities.

  5. As a help site

    • It is a place where you can get help with understanding your mathematics homework.

    • It is not a place for you to get others to finish your mathematics homework.

  6. As a community

    • It is a place to meet and complement other mathematically minded people.

    • It is not a place to farm reputation (contrary to the SE model).

  7. As an sister site to Math Overflow

    • It welcomes mathematical inquiry that is not at the research level.

    • It does not welcome fringe theories that have no mathematical basis.

As of now, it seems that Math SE fulfills (2) and (7) but not the rest. I don't see an easy way to improve Math SE in these aspects without changing the flawed system for voting and reputation.

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