# The ever rising barrier to entry of Mathematics SE

Recently, I have been going over the accounts of a few users (using since 2 years or more) here and sorting questions by newest. I found that, usually, most people's oldest questions or answers weren't that good but then the quality of their posts gradually improved over time. For example, consider you can see my own oldest questions and compare them to my recent ones (most of them suck, feel free to downvote, close, delete if you think they are as terrible as I do).

It seems to me now that there is a critical mass of long users of Mathematics SE who can show better if not equal quality of presentation of a level similar to that of my recent questions. Since, we have accumulated so much experience in this site, I think we are undervaluing the difficulty of newbies in getting used to the site customs and becoming a quality participants.

I believe it is a very small minority of users who can post at the current level of quality that we ask for in their first post itself. So, if we are to think about increasing the quality of participation, I think the question should go from "how to filter out newbies" to "how can we better onboard newbies and teach them the skills needed to be quality contributors long term".

If we don't do this, then eventually oldest users would stop using/ newer user would move on to other sites if there ever comes slightly better options, in end effect, this site would die of with all its activity.

This, in practice, would involve teaching the essential skills and style of SE to the newbies.

Do you agree or disagree? If you agree, what changes can we make as a community to better our onboarding?

Also, here is the attitude and opinions of people on this matter from an SE whose population reduced by more than half over the years.

• It doesn't seem to me that the material you posted supports the title proposition. You conclude from your survey that new users become better over time at posting. I suspect most of such improvement is due to the efforts of new users. Aug 18 at 20:22
• "This in practice, would involve teaching the essential skills and style of SE to the newbies." Honestly I find it a bit insulting that you seem to be implying that we are not doing this. What do you think the cumulative effort that has gone into compiling a page like How to ask a good question and directing new users to it was for then? Aug 18 at 21:03
• Of course, if one learns math, then it's through their own efforts ultimately that they decide to search for material to learn the subject. The question is if effective material exists. @hardmath Aug 18 at 21:09
• The thread is helpful and gives a lot of good pointers but I am of doubt how effective it is in conveying the information to new users. Or maybe alternate strategies on top of that to convey @ElliotYu Aug 18 at 22:22
• One of the things we should do is discuss whether or not OP's comments can be lifted to context. If OPs interact, they should get better service, and I said in an earlier post that I see no problem with doing this if the question is salvageable. Then leave a comment saying : "xyz in the comments is important context. Next time, when you find that you're replying to someone with important information in the comments, try placing it into your post as well". This is a compromise between two extremes (1) Not improving the post (2) Salvaging everything by yourself with edits, with no OP role. Aug 19 at 3:34
• If we use Jeff Atwood's paradigm StackExchange is a Wiki first, then your concern does not appear very relevant. Surely the entry barrier to becoming a Wikipedia contributor has similarly risen over the years. Yet, we don't hear complaints that *Wikipedia would die of with all it's activity*[sic]. Of course, I know well enough that's not all there is to SE, but it is something to keep in mind. Aug 19 at 7:01
• I genuinely with all my heart believe that MSE has evolved much beyond a wiki. Take for example the allowance of PSQs effort. There is enough mass of quality contributors to make the focus of some of them helping new users climb the ropes @JyrkiLahtonen Aug 19 at 7:03
• I know @Beautifullyirrational. My quip can be seen as a knee-jerk response to your prediction of doom that the site would die off, if we don't make it easier to add new content (my interpretation). The parallel I want to draw is that it is natural that the use of the site gradually gravitates towards searching as opposed to posting. This should not be equated with the site is dying. Aug 19 at 7:10
• The big difference (to WP) from the point of view of the answerers is the gamification. In WP the names of the content editors/contributors are not prominently displayed, nor are they voted on. This has the huge downside that the game favors the individuals who were simply fortunate to be there at the beginning. Which has no correlation whatsoever with their relative competence. The next generation of contributors then is driven to answer anything they can to catch up. Of course, not all are motivated by rep points. May be a desire to feel relevant is closer to the mark? Aug 19 at 7:18
• And, of course, if the SE business model requires posts as opposed to visits, then they have little choice but to give up on the Wiki. I don't know which is more relevant to the current set up. Anyway, then we get to Joel Spolsky's (cofounder and former CEO of SE) prediction. The old-timers get bored with answering the same simple questions over and over again, and leave. The site devolves to what you would expect if seventh-graders were left to themselves. Lord of the flies. That's the dystopia many users want to prevent with their activism. Aug 19 at 7:26
• Okay those are a lot of good points. I'll take a while and format a good reply after thinking carefully about it. Aug 19 at 7:28
• FWIW I decided to upvote this question. It can (and will) be interpreted as pressing an anti-quality-control agenda, but the call for improving the onboarding of newbies is something I want to support. I find the points raised by Shog9 (a former community manager here) most illuminating. Particularly the realization that these sites are a shared resource. Many measures (PSQ rules, EoQS) can also be seen as seeking to limit a single user to their fair share of the site. Figuring out exactly where the boundaries should be is still unsolved :-( Aug 19 at 7:46
• "The thread is helpful and gives a lot of good pointers but I am of doubt how effective it is in conveying the information to new users." This then. Aug 19 at 13:05

Such a healthy and broad discussion in comment section prompted me to write an answer after giving a lot of thought.

In my view/understanding, basically there are 2 sorts of extreme/pole that exist when it comes to MSE.

Pole $$\bf1$$:
Want to encourage more new users to the site.
Do not have any problems with an easy/homework/"low quality" posts.
Encourage near-transforming-the-post edits to save the question or to encourage/welcome the new users to the site.
[Origin]: Generally, those who joined MSE later.
[Status]: Already quite some leeway given when compared to the original standards, but, want more.
[Consequences Positive]:

1. Increased traffic and activity on the site, thus, longer/everlasting youth (immortality?) of the site.
2. Growth of the population of the MSE community as more users will be added and perhaps increasingly so.
3. Scope of the site will be increased. Not just repository of limited questions but tending towards universal set of questions and concepts and applications and discussions, etc.
4. All in all it will tend to become like close to StackOverflow.

Pole $$\bf2$$:
Expect new users (even $$1^{st}$$ post) to strictly follow the community guidelines outright. [The post should be well-formatted with proper context and mathjax included.]
Want to see/encourage "quality" post for a "good repository".
Encourage stick approach to teach new users the etiquettes thus, discouraging major edits.
[Origin]: Generally, those who were from the beginning.
[Status]: Feel the site has turned for worse and needs to be restored to its original glory.
[Consequences Positive]:

1. A lot fewer questions giving space for the "quality" questions to get the light and thus will be engaged in more than being missed/neglected.
2. Quality participation (near exclusively) will (slightly) increase (after seeing a massive decrease) thus also encouraging better solutions and better discussions to take place.
3. No longer so many mods will be needed and neither the (then fewer) mods will be so over-worked.
4. The site will see fewer posts which are really "unique" thus making MSE a library of questions that one won't find elsewhere.
5. All in all will come close to becoming MathOverflow.

Some of the suggestions yet:

1. Having another site for easier questions.
2. Switching to Pole 1.
3. Switching to Pole 2.

My suggestion:
The major chunk of the problem lies in the level of the question.
[Perspective 1]: You're a high school student or a graduate and knows that MSE is the best and so will get/find great answers to their problems but the site is so strict I can't ask anything there.
[Perspective 2]: I'm a research scholar or a PhD holder and I like to or want to help others with their problems but obviously I don't find myself interested in telling someone how to tackle with the most basest of the questions but what to do, finding questions worth my time is like finding a needle in a haysack! I'm obviously not interested in that sort of labour.

[Solution]: This in my honest opinion is a WIN-WIN and most suited for site like MSE but is a bit demanding (of the MSE staff). It's as follows:

While it is not easy to classify the questions as easy or medium or hard but that can happen automatically! We need that the OP also mention there level of education every time they ask a question (or if they want have a default setting too). Thus, they'll have something like this:
$$\circ$$ I'm a highschool student.
$$\circ$$ I'm a graduate (student).
$$\circ$$ PhD or higher level of qualification.
The OP will select one among the above options and then posting as usual.
Finally, in the "Filter" we'll have another column, namely, "Qualification" with the above 3 checkboxes and option to select one or more.
Problem Solved!

[Consequences]:

1. Immortal, growing site with increased traffic.
2. Site will become one-stop solution for all maths problems.
3. All the "high quality"/difficult/expert questions will be clearly visible.
4. Both the more and less qualified will have fun with maths.

How it addresses some other problems?

1. Editing: Now people closer to Pole 2 will engage less with Pole 1 and users closer to pole 1 are happy to make grand edits.

Drawbacks:

1. Hard to implement as it's not something even mods can't implement if they wish. The staff needs to be coaxed.
2. Sometimes highschool students or graduates come up with difficult/"high quality"/expert questions which are likely to be then neglected by the users closer to pole 2.
3. Someone despite claiming higher qualification might ask easy questions or make the false claim in the first place.

But the drawbacks 2. and 3. are easily solvable via moderators/community participation.
For 2., since every question has the option to be given it's level of qualification and not solid/labelled upon the user, so the community can easily change the question's description from 1 to another.
For 3., while former half is addressed by the above point, the latter half will be addressed by the mods if the user if found to be cheating multiple times (as it happens existingly).

• @Beautifullyirrational $1$. If I understand correctly, "quality of post" means the same as "difficulty level" and the "quality of presentation of post" means the same as "well-formatted with proper context and mathjax included". I have talked on both. $2$. Thank you. I think it's alright to have MO too but MSE can do (much) better imho as suggested. Aug 20 at 5:32
• @MartinSleziak thanks a lot for bringing these out. (Kindly tell me which search engine do you use?) The first 2 posts talk about formation of another site which won't do any good in my opinion as the gap between questions of lower and medium level isn't great. It's TOO hard to draw a line. In the $3^{rd}$ post, tagging is suggested to resolve the issue and demarcate the level of the question. This is suggestion is OK-ish. As long as the staff isn't coaxed to change site as suggested above then, this idea would/might closely serve the same purpose. Aug 20 at 7:59