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This site means a lot to many people, myself included. It has been my number one source of sharing interesting problems, learning mathematics, and seeing what others have to share. This being the case, I do not make this post lightly.

There are two things about this site that many do not realize.

  1. It has a deep community unknown to many, which is the beating heart of it all.

  2. It has a pervasive system which unknowingly facilitates the suppression of this community.


$$\large{\text{A deep community}}$$

There are those who have been on this site for more than a decade, some even moderators, or employees themselves, who do not realize the extensive community this site offers. This is not a questions and answers site, and it never has been.

  • This is a site for people who have no one in their life to ask questions on math.
  • This is a site for people who are unsatisfied with what their classroom had for answers.
  • This is a site for people to turn to when modern math education had failed them.
  • This is a site for people to disguise their excitement of math in the form of a question.
  • This is a site for people to create spaces of collaborative exploration.
  • This is a site for people to evade the stigma of being "that person" who likes math.

Where would you go, say, as a math-enthusiast who has a question that no one in their community has the answer to?

Whether you like it or not, and no matter what the guidelines say. People come here seeking community.

It is only on the surface that this is a questions and answers site. When someone comes to this site, they stick around not because they have found answers, but because they have found a space of people that share the same interests and knowledge that they do. Such a space is far and few in the real world.

I don't think people understand, most of the impactful questions on this site are not because people are looking for answers, but because they believe that they have discovered something beautiful (an equation, algebraic structure, natural transformation, whatever), and have decided to share it here (under the guise of a question) where it is guaranteed to meet appreciation from like-minded people.

$$\text{Math is beautiful.}$$ $$\text{Questions are our way to share that beauty.}$$

I recognize that there are many who come here purely professionally, or academically, but deep down, it has always been a community, open to everyone who can recognize that. But some people can't / won't / don't, and the guidelines perpetuate this contradiction. The questions which have always sung the most spirit into the site, are precisely the ones which have miraculously avoided their prohibition.

If you feel like there's a community here, I encourage you to speak up as I have.


$$\large{\text{A pervasive system}}$$

Despite the roots of this site having always been a community, the very systems in place said to maintain the site speak a different truth. A most provocative example is this site's

What types of questions should I avoid asking?

Almost every guideline speaks of a place stripped of personality and expressive inquiry.

We are told to avoid questions where

  • every answer is equally valid: “What’s your favorite ______?”

God-forbid we make a space where everyone's perspective is validated; where

  • your answer is provided along with the question, and you expect more answers: “I use ______ for ______, what do you use?”

This one hurts. May you read this again until you realize that what is being spoken against here is, ironically, one of the greatest motivators for coming here; where

  • there is no actual problem to be solved: “I’m curious if other people feel like I do.”

So we may reduce the joy of recreational mathematics to nothing more than problem solving; where

  • you are asking an open-ended, hypothetical question: “What if ______ happened?”

Because, of course, there is no room in the hard sciences to consider something we can't objectify; where,

  • your question is just a rant in disguise: “______ sucks, am I right?”

Since emotions are bad and you should not express them here.

$$\text{Obviously, I am exaggerating, right?}$$

Yet, how would you feel as someone who has taken up extra-curricular interest in mathematics, but in the only place to find like-minded people you must first put on a mask of professionalism, despite the fact that math is not a job to you, but your passion?

How would you feel, as one of the many neurodivergent young-adults who come to math as a solace of truth and beauty, whom are stigmatized by their peers for being the "weird kid that likes math", only to have that personal connection thrown away the moment they set foot here?

But then again, perhaps I am just appealing to your emotion.

$$\text{The hammer of closure}$$

No matter how important a question is to you, all it takes is five. Five people with enough reputation to close a question. In all fairness, it takes only three to reopen that.

  • But does this take into consideration the fact that once a question is closed (both from psychological factors and systems like it being taken off Hot Network Questions), its traffic is restricted, limiting how many could possibly cast a vote to reopen in the first place?

  • Does this take into consideration the fact that those that have the power to close outnumber those that do not have such a power?

Yes, you have the freedom to come to meta and make your plea, but who has the courage and time to do so, especially after the feeling of defeat of having your question closed by internet strangers who, together, wield a power greater than your ability to ask your heart's questions?

$$\text{Real people, real feelings}$$

This isn't the only time I've brought attention to systems in place which are an obstacle to the vulnerable. Over a year ago I asked,

Why should "trivial" questions not meet the guidelines?

Discussing the pattern of new users, or beginner questions, being / feeling excluded.

Here is what real people had to say then:

This happened to me and still makes me nervous using this site [...] This issue of nervousness to ask questions applies across different SE subjects - it's not specific to maths. My intention of using this site was to build my knowledge through other people's expertise but its turned out to be a disappointing exercise. I am very well qualified so I can find answers elsewhere if needed but I am concerned for new learners here. There seems to be a real problem with the SE model. While the fixes needed are significant, they are not impossible to make. I will keep those fixes to myself for now. - Mari153

I also subconsciously thought "closed=dead", until now [...] Funny thing that, I think, the mere choice of the word "closed" sort-of brings up this perception "closed=dead" - Stinking Bishop

The fact that users feel the need to apologize for their ignorance of a triviality on this site is probably not a good sign." It is definitely not a good sign. I'll voice up and say that I feel this way myself. - Pineapple Fish

And from my most recent meta post,

Math.SE would have much higher “quality” if there was more generosity of spirit. Or rather that those who do not possess that generosity were not able to simply slamdunk close as is apparently their desire [...] I find the close hammer absolutely repellent and discouraging - and I know that many newcomers receive negative treatment and never return. If we are looking to improve “usefulness” then increasing the kindness and acceptance of various perspectives (still within the rigour of mathematics of course) is absolutely where I would begin. Math, even serious math, can be about play. It is foolish and cruel to try to amputate that. - Laska

In the current model, it seems so unless a person goes and pleads on meta, the bureaucracy will have little regard for them, but keeping it like so, can be somewhat traumatic for a person who can't muster courage to make posts like the OP has on meta. - Hopeful Whitepiller

And these are just the comments I have witnessed. How many more of these quails happen publicly or privately, yet nothing substantial ever gets done?

My raw feeling is that, despite most of the moderation on this site being voluntary, there is, seemingly, an army (or at least a very vocal powerful minority), which have subconsciously pledged some allegiance to maintaining the status quo of this being an objective site for questions and answers, whilst ignoring the very real possibility that this is a damaging mentality.

But hey, if you disagree with me, rest easy knowing that all it takes is five of you to silence my voice.

$$\text{A perfect system}$$

I have said a lot, but the last thing I want to bring attention to is this.

There are people, real people, who were stripped of the ability to express themselves, through trauma, or whatever. This system of moderation is perfect for giving power to these people in all the unhealthy ways. It is a coping mechanism for many to wield power on the internet.

What I'm trying to say is that, if I were to create a self-enforcing elitist system, I would look no further than the Math StackExchange for inspiration. Simply give power to those with high "reputation", and give the most reputation to those who are the answerers, rather than the askers. That way, authority is not in the hands of the curious, but in the hands of those who see themselves as supreme judges of intellect.

I hope you understand, I'm even scared to make this post here, because all it takes is a few people to close this question, or make it never see the light of day; with little to no repercussions for them, despite the truth that I'm not just making this stuff up. Obviously something must be happening in order for me to make this post.

$$\text{The way foreward}$$

It's simple, but not easy. All this site has to do is acknowledge two things about itself.

  1. It has a deep community unknown to many, which is the beating heart of it all.

  2. It has a pervasive system which unknowingly facilitates the suppression of this community.

I wish for you as the reader to consider these words, and know that they mean no harm against anyone or their beliefs.

If you have seen or felt similar things to what I have said. Please let your voice be heard.

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  • $\begingroup$ Related sentiment as express by moderator themself on an another SE site $\endgroup$ Jun 10, 2023 at 8:34
  • $\begingroup$ That post was made somewhat shortly after I had written this post, and also the sentiment generally in the post which emphasizes that anti AI stance was rooted in the PSE community not liking rather than anything else. $\endgroup$ Jun 10, 2023 at 8:44
  • $\begingroup$ ". We owe this to you, the physics.SE community, since our promise to safeguard this site from computer-generated content on this meta was met with almost unanimous approval (it has received only a single downvote at the time of writing) — a rare thing for policy discussions on physics.SE, and a strong sign this community wants us to continue to act as we have before the announcement of the new network policy." $\endgroup$ Jun 10, 2023 at 8:44
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    $\begingroup$ I very much encourage the downvoters to at least attempt explaining their position rather than hiding behind the anonymous click of a button with no words. Is this really so trivial of a matter that nothing is even needed to outline why "This question does not show any research effort; it is unclear or not useful"? If so, I kindly ask of you to reconsider such discouraging levels of apathy. $\endgroup$
    – Graviton
    Jun 10, 2023 at 9:16
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    $\begingroup$ @Graviton downvotes on Meta express disagreement with the proposition, upvotes express agreement, as is explained roughly every month here. The downvoters are, in fact, responding to you appropriately (within the norms of the community) $\endgroup$
    – postmortes
    Jun 10, 2023 at 9:27
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    $\begingroup$ @postmortes So, it is normal and appropriate to respond to someone's deep-felt problems with something important to them in the form of an upvote or a downvote? A single $1$ or a $0$? A literal, single bit of information is all they have to contribute? That's useless to me. $\endgroup$
    – Graviton
    Jun 10, 2023 at 9:37
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    $\begingroup$ "That's useless to me." This web site is not here just to serve you. I sincerely don't know if you realize or believe this. $\endgroup$
    – JonathanZ
    Jun 10, 2023 at 14:19

2 Answers 2

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I saw the "conjectures" post and enjoyed it, guessed it would get closed as opinion based, and ended up wondering if there was a way to write up a meta question proposing a more permissive policy towards such questions.

I didn't come up with a good formulation, but I am pretty sure that this post isn't it. It's very long, and I won't address it all, but this part jumped out at me:

There are people, real people, who were stripped of the ability to express themselves, through trauma, or whatever. This system of moderation is perfect for giving power to these people in all the unhealthy ways. It is a coping mechanism for many to wield power on the internet.

Saying that the people who disagree with you are damaged, and not considering that they are simply pursuing a different idea of what the site should be? No.

I think that we do have a community here, though it may not be the community you want. And I think one of our community standards is that our disagreements don't descend to personal attacks. Trust me, there have been times in the past where I have thought unkind things about the motives of others here, but I don't write them here, because we have to get along with each other.

And it's kinda too bad, because it would be cool if there were a social web site like you describe - you're not the only one asking for math.se to be it. And if one existed I'd definitely advocate for us pointing people who wanted such a thing to it.

You asked for reasons for downvotes. That paragraph got mine.

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    $\begingroup$ This was written surprisingly politely. Good job! $\endgroup$ Jun 10, 2023 at 14:43
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    $\begingroup$ Well, if my point was that we have to give sincere consideration to others here, I kinda had to be extra certain to be polite, didn't I? :-) Also, I'm glad that you thought it was polite, but a bit bummed that that politeness surprised you. I guess that's just the internet these days. :-( $\endgroup$
    – JonathanZ
    Jun 10, 2023 at 16:04
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There are many practical compromises that can be made, if everyone is so-inclined. I am extremely open to hearing other ideas, but here is a simple one to get the ball moving, as an alternative to what I have offered above.

I will admit that this is a big ask, but I will leave it here just as an example of what I think would be a beneficial compromise to everyone involved.

A dedicated SE for Recreational Mathematics.

In the other direction, we already have MathOverflow for professional mathematicians, so it would only make sense to have a complimentary site for the just-as-important recreational side of mathematics.

Some pros:

  • As clearly demonstrated by other StackExchange sites like CodeGolf, and Puzzling, it's clear that there is an audience which can successfully mesh well with the mechanisms of the Q&A structure, despite the fact that in these places subjective interpretations, creative expression, open-discussions, are not only allowed, but to some extent, encouraged!
  • No policy changes would have to take affect here (other than possibly redirecting recreational mathematics to the proper site).

Some cons:

  • The work that is required to maintain a new site.
  • This still does not set a site-wide standard of acknowledging that community is an essential part of every field.
  • This is something of a segregated environment.

What do you think?

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  • $\begingroup$ FYI this was made as a draft before Accelerator's post, if you're wondering how I managed to still have the patience for diplomacy. $\endgroup$
    – Graviton
    Jun 10, 2023 at 12:39
  • $\begingroup$ The constant question that irritates my mind is why are there usually only one of the big and useful social media site. Eg se reddit discord. Its always a monopoly. Meanwhile years back we had people discovering whole big social media from nothing eg mark Zuckerberg or smthn $\endgroup$ Jun 10, 2023 at 14:45
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    $\begingroup$ One issue I have is, it's not clear what is recreational mathematics and where the line between it and serious math lies $\endgroup$ Jun 10, 2023 at 14:45
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    $\begingroup$ @Graviton FYI, a site search came up with When is a question 'recreational'?, and in particular this answer to Recreational math. $\endgroup$ Jun 10, 2023 at 17:57
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    $\begingroup$ I imagine that the question, math.stackexchange.com/questions/4714174/… would be closed as off-topic on the proposed Recreational Math site? $\endgroup$ Jun 10, 2023 at 23:03

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