Mathematics Stack Exchange (MSE) is the most unusual blog or wiki I came across. It is frequented by professional mathematicians. The standard is a lot higher than Wikipedia. What makes them willing to spend their effort there? Why MSE is attractive to them? I ask these questions as a layman.

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    $\begingroup$ We like to show off. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 19, 2021 at 11:38
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    $\begingroup$ You can find some related discussions here on meta: Why do you answer questions on math.stackexchange?, What do you really like about working with/contributing to math-SE?, Academic advantages of activity on SE, maybe also What is the Real Use of Reputation? (You can probably find some similar posts on Meta Stack Exchange and Meta StackOverflow.) $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 19, 2021 at 11:49
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    $\begingroup$ Since you have specifically mentioned Wikipedia, I will add this link: Comparison of Stack Exchange and Wikipedia?. Also Pete L. Clark's answer here is worth reading: Questions concerning editing of Wikipedia articles. I know of several reputable mathematicians who are also active Wikipedia editors. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 19, 2021 at 11:57
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    $\begingroup$ It's neither a blog nor a wiki. $\endgroup$
    – Asaf Karagila Mod
    Commented Feb 19, 2021 at 12:06
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    $\begingroup$ Maybe because there is no other reliable forum (excluding AOPS) where users personal info is not used for profit $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 19, 2021 at 13:12
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    $\begingroup$ @AsafKaragila: I apologise that I failed to classify MSE with mathematical precision. 8-) $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 19, 2021 at 15:57
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    $\begingroup$ I think it's because they like math. $\endgroup$
    – JonathanZ
    Commented Feb 19, 2021 at 16:56
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    $\begingroup$ I cannot speak for professional mathematicians as I am not one, but the primary reason for spending time here is that it is very rewarding (not in terms of rep points) in terms of variety of topics and questions. Even an expert in a field has a chance to get some new viewpoints. $\endgroup$
    – Paramanand Singh Mod
    Commented Feb 20, 2021 at 8:09
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    $\begingroup$ I don't think one can get this kind of diversity in a typical classroom scenario. Usually the scope is limited by the designed syllabus and prescribed textbooks. It's like teaching or studying in multiple universities at the same time . $\endgroup$
    – Paramanand Singh Mod
    Commented Feb 20, 2021 at 8:14
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    $\begingroup$ Call it the love of association of the mathematical kind...or anchor a down slide of the rusting mind... at least it rhymes. $\endgroup$
    – Narasimham
    Commented Feb 27, 2021 at 4:08
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    $\begingroup$ Change that to : why is Math Stack Exchange frequented by anybody studying math? It is simple : does MSE have any duplicate sites? No. It is priceless, a rarity of the highest order. Add to that the fact that you are getting a repository of results and explanations, from middle-to-high school math all the way up to recent research and explained papers for the cost of your internet connection, and this is the most accessible, maybe only mathematics community site, where you can have 100 reputation and get to see the answers of Noam Elkies and Yuval Peres. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 27, 2021 at 11:03
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    $\begingroup$ @TeresaLisbon: yeah that's the best part. If you are willing to learn there is no end to what can be done here. $\endgroup$
    – Paramanand Singh Mod
    Commented Feb 27, 2021 at 15:57
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    $\begingroup$ Eventually as most of the easy questions get answered and solved here only harder puzzles and weirder questions will remain, and at some point this forum will start to look like mathoverflow but filled with more amateurs hyperfocused on "non mainstream" sub topics/elementary accessible topics. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 28, 2021 at 4:07
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    $\begingroup$ The "feel good" attitude of this is quite amusing, but was to be expected: anything critical would be downvoted into oblivion, this is meta, after all. Fortunately, there are honest contributions, too: yes, we like to show off. I think I'm qualified as "professional", even though I wasn't doing maths as a day job in the last 20+ years (but holding some academic degrees in that area). Whatever, the annoying things here are are homework questions, backstabbing (malevolent/revenge downvotes) and the arrogance of power. Now forward, cowards, you can't downvote a comment, but flag, delete, suspend! $\endgroup$
    – NoNames
    Commented Feb 28, 2021 at 14:53
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    $\begingroup$ @stevengregory Do not underestimate the power of MSE : you don't need to hope to go on for a few years, you will be dragged through by the charisma of the site. Your contributions and insight will be honey to the newer users. Keep going! $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 3, 2021 at 6:24

5 Answers 5


Academics have a lot of unstructured time (I do not mean "free" time), which is definitely a part of it. This does not explain why the math should be different from other subject-specific-and-academia-adjacent SEs.

Mathematicians don't need to know where a problem comes from in order to care about it. That makes math unusually amenable to Internet forums. In many fields, something is only interesting if a lot of people are talking about it, or if the people talking about it are "important." If I come up with a question or proposal about how to change a law, for example, who cares; if a retired head of government has the same proposal, it's interesting - because of where it's coming from. Yet if some important person has a position on X, it's well ventilated elsewhere, and an Internet forum is kind of redundant. There are better outlets. This might explain why political scientists and heads of state are not browsing the Politics SE for things to respond to. Which is not to say that professional mathematicians browse Math.SE for research ideas, but you get the point.

Math has less nexus to things people see in headlines, or hold as personal beliefs. Random people aren't going to jump into math forums and demand debate (most of the time). There are people who want their homework done, but that's about it. In many fields, random people form strong opinions about issues after watching TV. Not in math. (People complain about a lack of mathematical literacy in the public, but it's part of what keeps a site like this a place where professionals may still appear.)

I'd further note math is not an IP-intensive area. Many of my friends in biology, chemistry, etc. have ties to commercial concerns that either forbid them from publicly sharing anything resembling what they're working on (or might work on). Many lab sciences folks absorb (rightly or wrongly) a norm that many things are a competition and knowledge is to be shared at most in publications and at conferences. Not math (although should you work for a government that employs mathematicians, I do not recommend bringing insights or problems from work to Math.SE or indeed anywhere on the Internet).

Math more than many other fields is close to childhood play. Very few people write long essays or lines of code at the behest of other people (or whatever else) as children. But many have fond memories of figuring math things out at an early age. For many this site is a bit like time traveling. And nostalgia aside, math produces problems capable of being understood and posed by very young people that remain of interest to professionals. I can't think of another field like that.

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    $\begingroup$ +1 for comparing math with other professions. $\endgroup$
    – Paramanand Singh Mod
    Commented Feb 27, 2021 at 3:54

To add to the already excellent answers here, there are two reasons why I personally have contributed to MSE:

  1. MSE is an endless source of interesting mathematical problems. I find problem solving fun, and after one moves beyond things like math competitions, it can be hard to find random math problems to solve on a daily basis. MSE provides that. I even have published some stuff that originated from MSE questions.
  2. The way the rep and bounty system is structured on MSE make it advantageous to contribute answers to the site even if all you really want is to have a question of your own answered. The reason I first started contributing answers was to gain rep so I could offer a bounty on a question of mine. (I am now well past the point where I need rep to offer bounties, so this point doesn't really apply to me any more. But the bounty system can offer an incentive for people to begin contributing in the first place.)

Similar to a coach of a nationally ranked football team having a recruiting advantage. For a variety of reasons, mathSE attracted high quality queries and high quality answers, perhaps partly as a result of mathSE prioritizing this metaMath article.

Anyway, math professionals start flocking and giving high quality contributions, which attracts more math professionals. These additional professionals do the same, which creates an avalanche effect.

It has gotten to the point that it is very common for a mathSE reviewer with a 30+k reputation to leave a comment that has more insight/elegance than an answer that I would have left.

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    $\begingroup$ Agreed. "mathSE attracted high quality queries and high quality answers" And, of course, to keep it this way we all should do our part to avoid mathSE from being swamped with "do my homework for me" type problems. $\endgroup$
    – GEdgar
    Commented Feb 26, 2021 at 13:42
  • $\begingroup$ @GEdgar While I think that your viewpoint has a great deal of merit, I think that there is also merit in being of value to the query posters. As a starting point for discussion, see this list of defects. I do not subscribe to the one-size-fits-all perspective of requiring (for example) that significant work be shown. ...see next comment $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 26, 2021 at 13:56
  • $\begingroup$ @GEdgar While this requirement is generally reasonable, it depends on the nature of the query and the backgrd of the poster. For a blatant example where I disagreed, see this. There is also a more subtle problem. Giving priority to quality over service leads to a culture of anonymous downvoting and rapid voting to close, both of which I object to. ...see next comment $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 26, 2021 at 14:04
  • $\begingroup$ @GEdgar I certainly acknowledge the counter argument that preserving quality leads to greater service. I simply feel that the situation is actually extremely complicated. At the same time that most posters are seduced by the path of least resistance, so are a significant number of downvoters - voters to close. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 26, 2021 at 14:05
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    $\begingroup$ +1 there and I hope the comments do not become debate about context and effort. $\endgroup$
    – Paramanand Singh Mod
    Commented Feb 27, 2021 at 3:57

I'm not a professional but I've been on this site for a year now and I think my long stay boils down to five points and I can imagine a similar experience would be for someone who is a professional:

  • There is a minimum standard kept on questions and answers
  • Once written posts can be referenced many times later on another posts, so you kinda build links between concepts in your mind
  • There is no other worthy competitor to this site that I know of
  • Addiction. This is a point I don't like bringing up but it is indeed true, there is a motivation to hit an X point bench mark on the site, right now I wish to get at least 4000 points.
  • Though the site has some addictive nature with the points and all, it is a 'good' addiction as I have learned a lot of things from spending time here. So, it's time well spent.

However, there are negative points about this site too. I think there is a lot more potential for growth and improvement.

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    $\begingroup$ +1 for having brought to light the "addiction" part. There have been times I blocked MSE on my phone cause I spent too much time here. Sometimes it's hard to see a very cool problem you think you can solve and just pass; it's much more common to spend one hour scribbling and hour texxing :) $\endgroup$ Commented Mar 3, 2021 at 16:14
  • $\begingroup$ Congratulations on 4000 points :) $\endgroup$
    – Blue
    Commented Mar 14, 2021 at 17:16
  • $\begingroup$ Thank you @Blue!!!!! $\endgroup$
    – Babu
    Commented Mar 14, 2021 at 17:19

I started using math.se as an undergrad when I was just starting to explore research-level material that I had noone to ask about. There wasn't really anywhere else where people with expertise would humor me, and what I wanted to know about wasn't in books. I became connected to the community, and after a while, I learned enough that I could start answering questions within my niche. That eventually lead me down a pipeline to math grad school.

I think this experience is unique to math.se and I like the idea that others could have it too. I stick around because I like supporting that.


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