StackOverflow has quite the reputation as a toxic site, mostly for being unwelcoming to new users. But what's MathSE's general reputation? For users who are teachers, have you heard any of your students' opinions of this site? For users who work in a math/tech/science job, how do your colleagues feel about this site? Has anyone heard opinions about this site elsewhere on the internet? I only ever hear meta talk about the site here on MathMeta either from power-users or disgruntled new users, so I'm curious how we're viewed more broadly.
Here are some of my experiences talking about math.se in the real world.
I knew a well-meaning but struggling sophomore math major who felt too afraid to post a question here. She used the site frequently as a resource by finding questions through Google, but viewed the community as standoffish, with opaque expectations that she was bound to mess up in some way. I assured her that the community is welcoming to those who show good faith and learn the rules, and helped her write her first question so that it had good context and everything. It turns out the answer was somewhat obvious, however-- she had miscalculated while checking an early counterexample-- and people jumped all over her for it. She said she told me so, and refused to come back ever since.
As an undergrad a friend of mine signed up after he saw me using it, but didn't think any of his questions were interesting or original enough to post here. He seemed to think of it like math student social media rather than a place to get help or collaborate on research.
I always recommend math.se while teaching in the resources section of my syllabus. I preface it with the "how to ask a good question" link. I've had 10 or so students over the years mention to me that they tried it and got told off. That being said, there are two instances where I've caught groups of students cheating on takehome exams (all work containing the same miscalculation) and traced it back to a PSQ with the exact same wording. I write all my questions from scratch, so I knew it was mine. So, at least some of them did not give up on the site, I guess.
When I first got to grad school, several of my cohort were very put off when I mentioned I mod on math.se, because they believed it was a site intended for cheating at math homework. They had always avoided it in the past due to this impression and did not really believe me when I disputed it. One of them told me that when he really needed math help, he got it on 4chan. (Seriously.)
On the other hand, a few other grad students recognized my name from having previously stumbled across answers I'd written here. Something they had in common was they didn't exactly understand the community aspect of the site. The Q&A format reminded them of somewhere that passers by ask questions and don't stick around, similar to chegg or yahoo answers. The idea of moderators being elected seemed crazy to them. They assumed I was hired by SE and that this was a job, similar to tutoring, or writing online articles.
One professor referred to math.se as "Math Underflow" and wondered (continually, throughout all of grad school) why I waste my time here instead of "the real thing."
I was asked about math.se during every job interview I had after my PhD. (I went into industry, since my research has applications to ML.) One of the interviewers seemed certain that math.se was some type of math business that I ran/owned, but most were familiar enough with StackOverflow to be able to extrapolate an understanding of math.se. Similarly, my current coworkers do not use math.se, but they consider SO a canonical resource (but just for Googling, nobody posts there).
This is THE place. I call this place a "super computer". And it is. It is true that maybe it is a harsh place for newbies, but that is not 100% true. It is harsh only if you ask something that clearly is intended to solve your homework, and your homework is "easy". I think it helps keeping this place orbiting around the genuine, difficult and challenging questions. But even that, some tag like 'elementary', or 'soft question' may help those new users to get their answer. But as I said, this is THE place. If you have a genuinely challenging question, you want to know that there's a place where the best experts in the matter will compete for giving you the most complete and accurate answer. WolframAlpha has nothing to do when it comes to finding solutions to the questions that people post here. Literally: this is the best math supercomputer you can access on the Internet. And this is the reputation that other colleagues have about this site. Just learn how to post, and what kind of questions the community likes.
Stackexchange sites are all different. For me, math.SE is the one SE site that's so frequently hostile that I've essentially stopped asking questions or giving answers.
I don't know if I would fall in the category of "more casual users" that you have in mind. I double-majored in math and physics as an undergrad, but my graduate degree is in physics, and I think of myself as a physicist. I'm not a research-level mathematician by any stretch of the imagination. I lurk on mathoverflow but am almost never qualified to participate meaningfully there. I do occasionally get a chance to teach math at my community college, but not that often.
The problem with math.SE, as far as I can tell, is that it's inundated with do-my-homework questions, and therefore it feels like any question I ask is instantly greeted with anger by people who imagine that that's what I'm doing. Say I ask a question like, "What happens if you make this definition of foo more restrictive, are there nontrivial examples?" I get answers like, "You lazy person. Why don't you just look in your textbook, and it will certainly give a definition of Smith-Jones semi-foos, which is what you're asking about. This is a standard topic in the kind of course you're taking." The assumption is that I must be taking a course on this topic, must own a textbook on it, etc.
The trouble with this sort of nastiness is that even if it's only one interaction out of 20, it's the one I remember.
I am a person who was "good" at math in high school, but I would definitely consider myself an "enthusiast" rather than a "mathematician". (Somehow I feel that "mathematician" is a serious title reserved for those who do research, while I am merely a student.)
For me, Math.SE is the only place where I can ask and discuss math topics of any level and actually receive an answer of reasonable expertise. In highschool I also read AoPS forum, but the posts are mainly competition math focused rather than about the "big idea". I am vaguely aware of some usenet groups but that is way before my time and not as accessible to me. Like Carlos Toscano-Ochoa said: I don't know of any other math community as large or active.
The site has exposed me to so many new ways of thinking about problems that would otherwise be confined to asking my professor or a select few math-inclined friends. The site has also exposed me to many more areas of math in general that I otherwise would have no awareness of, save for reading on Wikipedia, which can be daunting or not in-depth enough. I think I can reasonably credit this site for influencing my decision to get a math minor.
I learned early on that as long as you show some kind of effort or attempt in your posts, even homework-like questions are received well. Unfortunately there are many new users who don't understand this. "What do you know? What have you tried?" should be put in giant bold letters for all new askers. I find StackOverflow has a similar culture where many new askers want debugging or code-writing help without showing any effort of their own, or they don't bother to search for duplicates (to be fair, StackExchange's search function isn't that great). I think the reputation of StackOverflow as hostile is overblown and comes more from the misunderstanding that it is a free debugging service or place to go for recommendations. Anyhow, I consider Math.SE to be an incredible community and I have never personally experienced hostility (sometimes terseness that can be misconstrued as rudeness).
Of the people I know—and some of them are mathematically inclined—Math SE is not super well known. Most of the people are not surprised it exists, but have not specifically used it.
I don't know that I've ever heard specifically about it being unwelcoming. Of the people who have heard of it, some pages just come up in a search and they get what they want, and leave (without registering, I get the impression).
I think most of the long-time denizens of Math SE actively try to help sincere new users, but there are a few facets of the experience here that may lead to an impression of hostility (or at least coldness).
I seem to recall one of my early questions being underspecified. I was called on it, and I corrected the question (or confirmed their suspicions, or something). There was nothing rude about the way the comment was phrased, and I acknowledged the ambiguity was there. Nonetheless...
To a new user who is furthermore new to the rigor of mathematics, even at its most elementary levels, a well-intentioned question can incur what may seem to be an unreasonable demand for precision. It may seem to them that they asked, "Are there two numbers that when multiplied yield—" and before they could get any further than that, Math SE (at that point an undifferentiated mass of math heads) demanded:
- Oh, "numbers"? Do you mean reals? Integers? Or just anything in a field?
- Before you ask what happens when you multiply them, be sure that they can be multiplied. How do you know this?
- This seems underspecified. Is this a homework question? Or is this just some problem you made up? Please give us some context surrounding the question.
Obviously, I'm exaggerating for effect, but I think it's not inaccurate to say that some new users feel a bit badgered by the comments. It's not really the fault of anyone, and some of this is brought on by bad new users, but it probably could be better. I'm not sure exactly how to bring that about, though.
I would like to share my view on the two Stack Exchange (SE) sites that I — a high school student — use the most: Mathematics SE and Physics SE. I agree that both sites are vast repositories of quality scientific and mathematical knowledge. However, this view is based on how new users are treated.
My personal experience with Mathematics SE was so good compared to that with Physics SE. The latter is very cruel and unwelcoming towards newcomers. Initially, my three questions were heavily downvoted without leaving any comment (when one downvotes, a pop-up appears instructing one to do so) and finally it was deleted. After the deletion, I got an automatically generated message quoting its homework policy. Why didn't they comment on it before deletion so that I would have edited the question? As a newbie, I didn't know about the working culture of the site. I was banned from asking questions.
On the other hand, with Mathematics SE everything went well. Since after being banned from Physics SE, I was more alert in asking questions on MSE, however, I noticed that the other new contributors, too, are well treated (exceptions in few cases where questions were blatantly off-topic without any work). The working culture here is a bit relaxed comparatively (it doesn't mean that the site is uncontrolled).
But, this comment left me thinking: is MSE really loosely held? Also, I found that moderators at MSE are more engaged on Meta than the main site compared to their Physics SE counterparts. There are many questions still on MSE which were posted by users long time ago and not in expected format which should have been edited by the contemporary moderators.
Finally, MSE has been a source of rich context for learners and preventing the brains of users having treasure of mathematics from atrophying. Hence, I feel fortunate being a member of such a community.
I was introduced to this site in my first year of undergrad by my calculus instructor (who has been a long-time user of this site). My experience has been almost universally positive, right from my very first post — the users have always been friendly and encouraging, and I cannot recall ever receiving any condescending comments from established users on my posts.
Among my colleagues (past and present), several of them swear by this site for its usefulness. One of them has assured me that there was no way he would be where he is now (pursuing a PhD at a top university) were it not for the insightful answers to his questions by the users here.
Another has often spoken to me about how composing questions here so that they are well-received has helped him clarify his own thought processes and, crucially, the presentation of his ideas. Not being a native speaker of the English language, he has had to struggle long and hard to be able to convey his mathematical thoughts clearly in speech and writing. I have no doubt that he credits Mathematics SE no small part in where he stands today (he has recently secured a comfortable academic position).
Most of my colleagues use Mathematics SE to browse for answers to their questions, even though they do not post here, or in many cases don't even have an account. They certainly consider it to be a canonical resource. I have tried encouraging some of them to participate more actively, but they are generally shy. Maybe they think that they cannot ask any useful or interesting question here (since almost any question that they are interested in is already found here by searching), or maybe they are just not that interested in participating in such a community.
The question seems to be what is the opinion about math.SE of some users who are unlikely to come here to meta. (The OP seems to be asking about unregistered users and users who do have an account, but only use the site occasionally.)
Maybe a reasonable thing to do would be to ask elsewhere - since we're interested in the input from the users who are unlikely to come here.
I am posting this CW answer where we could collect some suggestions where such questions could be posted. (And maybe eventually somebody might volunteer to ask about this on such site.)
- Reddit - perhaps specifically https://www.reddit.com/r/math/. If you search in this subreddit or reddit in general, you can see that Mathematics Stack Exchange is mentioned there from time to time. So there are certainly some reddit users which are familiar with this site.
- AoPS - users with sufficient reputation can check in site analytics that this site is among top referring sites for Mathematics Stack Exchange.
- Math Twitter – There's a pretty impressive community of mathematicians, both research academics and math teachers, on Twitter. Maybe someone with a hook into this community could tweet this question?
And if anyone does post such a question on these sites (rather than just link to this meta post), please edit the question post here on MathSEMeta to include a link to that question :)
This is an expansion to the comment I posted on the original post.
Usually when I finish a chapter in a course (ring theory, for instance), I search for the most voted questions on this topic and actually TRY to think of an answer. Then, I would read the answers. No matter how comprehensive your textbook/course is, browsing through questions and answers of different people really widens your horizon and brings up questions you thought were intuitive in the topic in discussion!
Furthermore, I emphasize that some users here are elite educators; let alone their high knowledge and qualification of mathematics. This combo is every enthusiastic learner's dream. If you show high efforts, they will DEFINITELY match you with that effort, if not more.
A godsend for self learning; I was an economics major but am switching to maths next year. As I am switching into the second year of a course I haven't formally studied, there's been a fair amount of self learning, mostly from online lecture notes and problem sets.
When I get really stuck or confused, this is where I look. For instance, when I started learning real analysis, I spent ages trying to prove incorrect statements which seemed intuitively true, e.g. regarding continuity of derivatives, and when I got in a muddle it was normalyl MSE where I found answers which cleared things up.
My experience has been very positive. I have found the Math.SE community very welcoming and patient with my beginner questions; certainly much more so than Stackoverflow or Serverfault. Often I also find the solution to my problem while composing a question.
My context for learning maths is to get a solid foundation in understanding CS topics like algorithms, develop a mathematical way of thinking, and find more simple/elegant ways of solving problems. I fit in the enthusiast bracket because I'm not a formal (as in university) maths student, academic, or directly mathematical field. My day job is software development in the context of infra automation.
I am (very slowly) working my way through the book Concrete Mathematics and using that as a jumping off point to learn new topics as I discover shortfalls in my knowledge required to fully understand each page. I'm really enjoying (re)discovering maths and Math.SE has greatly helped in that.