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$\begingroup$

I have found myself bewildered by a meldrum-conundrum, and I suggest a way of getting out of it.

So let's say we have a new user, a person who is getting used to the site and thus should be afforded a margin of error (I do so : whether it should be done is a debate for a different question). She/he has written a question that is poor but is improvable with directions from experienced users. I often find first replies (by first replies , I refer to all comments made before the OP's first comment) that immediately point to improvement of the post, such as "the following tag is incorrect" or "please type in MathJax" or "What is your background? Please add context" (all these are shortened versions of what is often, but I hope I communicate the content in these comments correctly).

What happens in this case sometimes is one of the two "undesirable" things :

  • The user is led to believe that improving the post is a must before getting an answer. While this is in fact the right attitude to inculcate, I do feel that users will consider it a burden to do so, and may abandon the question, leaving a poor question in the lurch, one that may have been useful if improved.

  • The user replies rudely, like "just answer my question, I don't know why you seem to focus on such matters that are peripheral to me". That severely restricts conversation with the user, and then you can't even mathematically communicate with freedom, let alone communicate issues in the question. This leaves another question that could have been improved hanging.

There definitely are reasons of putting such comments first, some of which include :

  • The site's quality is a priority over subsequent mathematical conversation, and the user's interest in the question is gauged immediately by the effort they make to improve their question.

  • Once the question improves, that improves the attention it gets and hence users can answer it, compared to them being reserved in doing so if the question is of poor quality while conversation to improve it takes place in the comments (although some users still answer poorly written questions, there's content about the size of the Titanic on that particular issue which I will not touch, unlike the icebergs that did so)


Now, my aim is to reduce the rudeness/animosity that may often be displayed in comments resulting from first replies. I do not think that everyone will agree, but I for one believe that if I put out to a user things that she/he may think are unrelated to the mathematical matter that is to be discussed, then this increases the chance of that user actually not registering this particular point, and either being dismayed or disgruntled, leading to a poisoned conversation.

Perhaps then, "first replies" should consist of mathematical feedback as much as possible? Or at least a hybrid of mathematical and post-related feedback?

Yes, this is my thought.


In more precision, if I wanted a user to improve his/her question, then I could mention something about the mathematics in the question they wrote, and attempt to initiate a comment from the user that says "ok I think we are in a good position to talk" and then once you have gauged the user's interest in the comments, you could politely ask them to improve the question and receive a response that would at least not be rude?

Some positives of doing this are as follows :

  • The user could be more inclined to make the changes once he/she has received a confirmation of sorts that his/her question will be addressed for certain, as first replies will indicate.

  • The user receives a feel-good factor from the above process and realizes the importance of having detailed posts, so may write better posts in the future.

  • There's no harm done, in the sense that if there's no response to a first reply then you just vote to close and delete, and if there are replies they can only be positive since the first replies have sought to address the user's mathematical doubt with intent.

Some of the pitfalls of this could be :

  • Another user, without asking for the permission of the OP edits the question before we can come to it (when we could have if we'd prioritized it in a first reply), and the OP is lead to the false conclusion that whatever he/she puts out is automatically corrected by others users , who do it quite often so that they can answer the question.

  • Even after conversation, some users may not necessarily buy into the idea of improving the post, because their concern has been addressed enough in the comments. This leads to self-deletion or abandonment of that question by the OP.


I wish to discuss this, because I think people take the former approach far more than they take the latter, and often face flak from new users over rude behaviour as recent meta posts have suggested. I think the more balanced approach suggested by me could be a way of dealing with new users that leaves neither side disappointed. Responses are welcome, most particularly I'd appreciate if anyone taking a stance comes up with an example to support it.

For example, I refer you to what happened here where a second reply contained a hybrid of mathematics and some details regarding tags and the user immediately loses patience (rude comments have been flagged and deleted, but contained content to the note "please focus on the mathematical content and don't dilute the discussion with stuff I haven't come to discuss"). This OP has no other history of being rude on the site, at least from a brief check. I do agree that this example may be extreme because the first replies were arguably not rude and only sought to find fault in the tags, but it's a matter of how the OP takes it and I think this one could have rankled the OP who lashed out. This example is my main prompt for writing this question. I will look to find other examples and I will post comments on them here when I find them.


$\mathrm{Who\ does\ this\ post \ target?}$

With respect to a new post, there are three categories of participants who can improve the quality of the question :

  • OP (original poster) whose (most likely) primary purpose is to get an answer to their question.

  • Site moderators i.e. users who spend a considerable amount of time moderating on the site and visit the question for the purpose of improving it.

  • Potential answerers , who are users that see the question in view of answering it.

This question targets potential answerers, who may choose to answer a question following its improvement by interacting mathematically with OP before proposing changes.

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    $\begingroup$ But while you and I and others are busy trying to encourage the asker to improve the post in concrete suggestions, The fastest guns in the west swoop down to "do it for the OP," after which most bets are off. The asker is happy that someone did it for them, and loses motivation to improve the question themselves. Would be answerers need to slow down and be part of the solution, rather than the primary problem they very often are now. $\endgroup$
    – amWhy
    Mar 10 at 16:39
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    $\begingroup$ @amWhy Completely agreed : it is the potential pool of answerers who can adopt my approach, because they are the people who can say something mathematically useful to the OP. In fact, as you have already said, answerers need to be far more proactive than general moderating users, and they need to be at the forefront of moderation rather than provide occasional helping hands and more often be violators of rules. For general users who don't know the mathematical content of the post , I would request putting out candidate duplicate posts , which qualify as content the OP can read and benefit from $\endgroup$ Mar 10 at 16:48
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    $\begingroup$ @amWhy This question is about how we can respond to new users in a manner which allows all parties i.e. OP, potential answerers and moderators, to attain a balance of individual requirements. Of these categories, the OP is unknowledgeable and the moderators are few and far between (unfortunately). The major burden of maintaining the quality of any such question falls on the shoulder of a potential answerer.That's why this suggestion I make is targeting them.It is meant for them, very much! If answerers are not following rules at all, then we don't stand a chance. They need to change, and fast. $\endgroup$ Mar 10 at 16:50
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    $\begingroup$ I very much agree with your ideas; I'm not criticizing your ideas in the least. But the users devoted to your ideas are likely not to be the most prolific of rep gainers. The burden of maintaining this site has fallen for too long on too few shoulders on this site. $\endgroup$
    – amWhy
    Mar 10 at 16:57
  • $\begingroup$ @amWhy I knew you were not criticizing me, but you were right in prompting me to point out that this question is addressed to the category of potential answerers. $\endgroup$ Mar 10 at 17:21
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    $\begingroup$ "meldrum-conundrum" evidently there is a band en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meldrum $\endgroup$
    – Will Jagy
    Mar 11 at 1:51
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    $\begingroup$ of course, there is also Olof Mellberg, currently managing Helsingfors. The common element is the letters m_e_l. $\endgroup$
    – Will Jagy
    Mar 11 at 4:26
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    $\begingroup$ @WillJagy You are very quick to point out these things! Indeed, both of them are correct. I came up with many of these phrases in school, in preparation for English essays and exams. Having said that, MSE has played a larger role in improving my diction and clarity than school ever did, which is funny because a mathematics site teaching English is out of the ordinary. $\endgroup$ Mar 11 at 4:51
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    $\begingroup$ A few days ago, a friend came up with "veritable trout." He said it just popped into his head. It has appeared in print, though; well 120 years ago. mmarkmiller.wordpress.com/2011/06/12/… $\endgroup$
    – Will Jagy
    Mar 11 at 4:55
  • $\begingroup$ @WillJagy Very nice! I used plenty of alliteration , aubrey alien , burgundy bloomingdale and what not (I had an A to Z list ready). Do come over to the Lisbon chat room if you'd like to discuss more, including on the SOS you spoke to me earlier about. Unfortunately we are running off topic for this post. $\endgroup$ Mar 11 at 5:08
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    $\begingroup$ By "site moderators" I assume you don't (just) mean the elected diamond moderators. Another (less ambiguous) term for such people is "curators". That's the preferred term on Meta.SE, and in posts from SE employees. $\endgroup$
    – PM 2Ring
    Mar 11 at 9:33
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    $\begingroup$ @PM2Ring Will use that word, I'd love being called a curator! $\endgroup$ Mar 11 at 9:36
  • $\begingroup$ @ParamanandSingh Thank you! More like I did not want that much detail, it just came out as I was writing the question. $\endgroup$ Mar 11 at 17:32
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$\begingroup$

You make some very good points.

We can expect OPs to put some effort into presenting their question well, but it's not realistic to demand it, especially if they're newcomers, and aren't aware of the Stack Exchange philosophy that we're a repository of good questions & answers, not an unpaid help desk. So our initial comments should focus on clarifying the mathematical details, not badgering them about issues related to site mechanics like tags and MathJax. Once we've established some rapport, then we can address those issues.

Of course, if the question is so poorly expressed or vague that it's not really answerable in its current state, we need to sort that out, but the focus should be "help us to understand and focus on your core question", not "you must jump through these hoops, or we won't help you".

However, it can be annoying to be in the process of engaging with the OP in comments only to have FGITW answers being prematurely posted, especially when those answerers have made some wild guess as to what the OP's question really means. It's even more annoying when they manage to guess correctly, and the OP then flits away without bothering to improve the question. ;)

Many newcomers are happy to comply with our requests to improve the question, and to become part of the Stack Exchange community. But some have absolutely no desire or intention of doing so. They just want their question answered ASAP, and may get hostile, or simply abandon the question, if they feel pressured to improve the question. Most "homework dumpers" are in that category, but not all of them. Some of them may even be genuinely perplexed that we aren't all desperately eager to do their homework for them. ;)

I've sometimes said (on various sites in the network) that Stack Exchange answers aren't free: you pay for good answers by posting a good question. Some OPs can appreciate that, but of course some just ignore it.

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    $\begingroup$ Thank you for your response. I'd like to know your views on whether the second approach should be adapted more often by potential answerers and capable (based on the situation) moderators, or if it won't help the situation. The point is that I feel the second approach is underutilized and could be helpful if used more often. If you had examples of either approach working/not working it would be nice. Also, what I think is never helpful is passersby leaving sarcastic unhelpful comments, poisoning the conversation and just walking off. Agreed? $\endgroup$ Mar 11 at 5:12
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    $\begingroup$ @TeresaLisbon I certainly agree that "first replies should consist of mathematical feedback as much as possible, or at least a hybrid of mathematical and post-related feedback". Sorry, I don't have good evidence for that, but it seems to be consistent with my experience on Math.SE, as well as various other sites on the network. However, it's not easy to get potential answerers and site moderators to change their behaviour. $\endgroup$
    – PM 2Ring
    Mar 11 at 9:27
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    $\begingroup$ (cont) It's definitely not a good idea to get into arguments with them in comments, and you can't force people to come to meta or chat for proper discussion. But you can link them to relevant Math.meta or Meta.SE posts on site or network-wide policy issues $\endgroup$
    – PM 2Ring
    Mar 11 at 9:29
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    $\begingroup$ Exactly, my only wish is that potential answerers did the hard work. $\endgroup$ Mar 11 at 9:35
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    $\begingroup$ Accepting the answer, thanks for your views. I still hope for discussion to take place in the comments, though. $\endgroup$ Mar 12 at 19:31
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    $\begingroup$ We may not be able to demand much from the askers, but we can, and in my opinion should, demand the answerers, the "trusted" users who have been around long enough to collect 20k points not to answer obvious duplicates and low quality homework dumps. $\endgroup$ Mar 15 at 9:29
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    $\begingroup$ @JyrkiLahtonen Definitely! But I don't know an effective way to do that. Diplomatic comments can sometimes work on the newer answerers, but they don't have much effect on the hard-core rep-farmers. I suppose we can just downvote those answers, but many of us aren't comfortable with dv'ing technically correct answers because that can confuse people into thinking the answer's wrong. FWIW, on Physics.SE, which has a very strict policy on homework-like questions, complete solutions to such questions are deleted. I don't know if that policy would be acceptable here. $\endgroup$
    – PM 2Ring
    Mar 15 at 10:10
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    $\begingroup$ I would welcome such a policy here also, but that horse may have bolted a long time ago. $\endgroup$ Mar 15 at 10:30
  • $\begingroup$ @JyrkiLahtonen When you do have time, kindly take a look at the second answer as well, which offers a different viewpoint to the entire question. I also agree with PM 2Ring on the response your opinion, but also feel that high-rep users are unfortunately the most "reputed" people on the site, so what they do, and how they respond to us, gets copied by newbies and who not. So action on such users is urgently required. What kind of a meta post should be put to bring to the community's attention these users? Does it even work? Need a dose of optimism here. $\endgroup$ Mar 15 at 12:30
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    $\begingroup$ I'm aware @TeresaLisbon. At times I have felt like the man from La Mancha, fighting these users. All pleas ringing to deaf ears. The lure of seeing their own name under a well received post is too much (their chief motives do vary, but the net result is a soup of duplicates instead of an organized repository). $\endgroup$ Mar 15 at 12:43
  • $\begingroup$ @JyrkiLahtonen I do recall a high rep user here being suspended for consistently low contributions. I followed this user prior to suspension, and I feel there are one or two users with similar profile. That gives me encouragement, but I don't actually know what the exact situation was. Maybe it is time to bring out the whip a little bit? Then again that could distance moderators from ordinary users if it becomes debatable, but I just think a light collective whiplash from the community is required for high-rep users. $\endgroup$ Mar 15 at 12:50
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    $\begingroup$ @TeresaLisbon It does not really feel that suspensions (the only available form of enforcement) is warranted for that kind of "a violation of norm". What I suggested here feels more fitting, the consequences for answering bad/duplicate questions would be similar to those of asking bad questions. But, you see, the StackOverflowers did not approve of that whole-heartedly. The vocal commenters want to kick a newbie rather than a deliberate dupe answerer. Without software support that is difficult to accomplish. $\endgroup$ Mar 15 at 12:57
  • $\begingroup$ @JyrkiLahtonen I resonate both with the second answer and with your last comment below it. Duplicate answers need punishing and there needs to be a systematic way to do it. $\endgroup$ Mar 15 at 13:18
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$\begingroup$
  • Be polite and respectful
  • Don't make petty/nitpick requests
  • Explain why you're asking for something if it wouldn't be obvious

If we follow those guidelines, I don't foresee any problem when dealing with reasonable users.[1]

Reasonable users would understand reasonable question requirements.

Why would anyone leave a comment telling a user to fix a tag or add some formatting? If there's some detail anyone can easily fix, just fix it yourself.

Or if the information isn't necessary to be able to adequately answer the question, don't ask it at all.

This seems more like an issue of people posting useless comments.

If you're asking a user to fix something in a question, but you're not also voting to close and/or downvoting it (or at least strongly considering doing so), then I might suggest thinking twice about asking that. If the question is on topic and answerable (so it should remain open) and it's not particularly low quality (so it shouldn't be downvoted), then there also likely isn't something that needs to be fixed by the author of a question specifically.

But of course one can leave a comment telling a user you fixed their post in a way that helps them avoid the same problems in future.

What we say in the first comment specifically shouldn't even be a consideration at all (unless that comment is some generic "welcome to the site" comment, which I'm not really sold on, but this doesn't seem to be about that).

[1]: If the users aren't reasonable, then we probably don't really want them here anyway and we shouldn't give them any special considerations.

the false conclusion that whatever he/she puts out is automatically corrected by others users

This is actually a true conclusion, to a reasonable extent. Many users, like myself, have no problem spending some time fixing an otherwise good question.

Of course we can't fix problems where the author needs to provide more information or posts something incoherent or whatever, but this should be obvious to a reasonable user (and also we would close such questions, so that would be a pretty clear signal that we won't fix those types of issues for them).

If a user keeps posting poorly formatted, but otherwise good, questions, to me that's still greatly preferable to someone who fails to meet the other question requirements that means we can't do anything with the question until the author fixes it.

Of course it would be better if their questions don't have formatting issues, but trying to micro-optimise the order in which we post comments to make them more receptive to fixing their formatting just seems like probably the least productive thing we can do to improve question quality and the new user experience.

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    $\begingroup$ "Why would anyone leave a comment telling a user to fix a tag or add some formatting?" I can think of a couple of reasons. One, if I see 2^x+1, I don't know whether it should be $2^x+1$ or $2^{x+1}$. Only OP knows. Two, if there are several paragraphs full of poorly-formatted math, it's a lot of work for me to format it. Let OP do that work. $\endgroup$ Mar 14 at 21:43
  • $\begingroup$ @GerryMyerson If some poor formatting makes the question ambiguous or confusing, then asking for clarification on that is probably a reasonable request that asks for information necessary to adequately answer the question (i.e. it's okay to comment that, and it probably also makes sense to close it until it's fixed). If it would take too much work for you to fix, then I would suggest just leaving it for other people who are more willing to do so and not engaging with those issues and/or the question as a whole at all. $\endgroup$
    – NotThatGuy
    Mar 14 at 22:21
  • $\begingroup$ @GerryMyerson Waiting for the author to fix it tends to just not work that well. They take too long or simply ignore the request altogether (and yes, other people might fix it first, but the bigger issue is that it gets answered and then the asker no longer really has any motivation to fix it). The only way to really "force" them to fix it is through closure or downvotes. If you feel (and the community agrees) that poor formatting justifies those actions, then commenting as well could make sense. $\endgroup$
    – NotThatGuy
    Mar 14 at 22:21
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    $\begingroup$ I like your answer. In particular, I like your justification of the statement that users do correct poorly formatted posts. I will always add the caveat (and I have seen it being violated many times) that one should not intrude upon the OP's true intentions in the question while making edits. This is heavily looked down upon, even if the edits are reasonable. Some people add made-up context and so on, not acceptable. For me, any edit that goes beyond changing the formatting and correcting grammar should be scrutinized in the least. If OP accepts it, that is great! $\endgroup$ Mar 15 at 3:15
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    $\begingroup$ Would also like to appreciate you for mentioning that most first comments can be useless for the OP. I've seen many many examples of this, and indeed this is the first and foremost thing we have to get rid of. Everybody is culpable of it, it is like an outlet of frustration. If conversation has to be productive we first have to rid the site of the negative response that swirls around bad questions. If this is done, then I can almost see my question above being obsolete, because the opportunities to apply my principle is dwarfed by the number of occasions a useless comment has ruined things. $\endgroup$ Mar 15 at 6:48
  • $\begingroup$ So be polite, respectful and finally positive (indicating progress) about a first response, is what I see from your bullet points. A very good way forward. $\endgroup$ Mar 15 at 6:49
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    $\begingroup$ Making petty/nitpicky requests is specifically how I try to draw an asker into the comments, even when I'm 95% sure I know what they're trying to say. I do it specifically for posts that are low on context, because people here look more favourably on askers who engage with answerers in the comments, and thus it reduces the chance that the question will be closed before they can get help. I should say that I endeavour to never be terse or unwelcoming in such comments; I just try to point out something that's ambiguous, explain why, and invite them to clarify what they meant. $\endgroup$ Mar 15 at 7:00
  • $\begingroup$ @TheoBendit Good points in general, thank you for engaging. What is your response to "just fix it yourself", which says that nitpicky things should be sorted out by ptential answerers or interested users? My response to it was that the OP to such a question will get used to nitpicks being sorted out, which I did not feel comfortable with but the answerer here has accepted occurs quite often. I think it comes down to how much we want the OP to do things him/herself, and to what extent potential answerers/ curators must step in. The difference of opinion is nice, it's how the site works! $\endgroup$ Mar 15 at 10:51
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    $\begingroup$ @TeresaLisbon I don't really see people coasting on community edits as a big problem. A problem, yes, but not a big problem. There's no shortage of people in the community encouraging (or in many cases, demanding) that askers fix things for themselves. Most of the repeat users of this site tend to be happy to edit their own questions. That said, I do, from time to time, observe people who ask usually about 5-10 questions who haven't learned any MathJax, at which point I post a comment saying something along the lines of "It's time for you to learn MathJax...", instead of editing for them. $\endgroup$ Mar 15 at 11:10
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    $\begingroup$ @TeresaLisbon Generally speaking, I think that if someone is willing to help out an asker with a question, this almost always does more good than harm. I wouldn't force anybody to help edit, but I will almost always encourage it. $\endgroup$ Mar 15 at 11:11
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    $\begingroup$ @TheoBendit Thank you for your views, looking forward to what others (in particular the answerer here) have to say on that as well. Your last comment resonates with another comment of mine from earlier on this thread : those who are willing to help out, and are willing to be positive, cooperative and polite to the user are of supreme importance to everybody on the site. You are a good example of this, as I see from your attitude on the main site, first class. Keep going! $\endgroup$ Mar 15 at 11:20

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