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I would like to participate more in the MSE and get in the habit of answering posts. However, because of my mathematical experience (or lack thereof), I'm always afraid that I'll post a solution that's not very helpful, or worse, an incorrect solution; the latter possibly resulting in a downvote. It also seems that questions that I can answer are often answered immediately by experienced community members (not that I find anything wrong with this). With these reasons in mind, the whole idea of wanting to give back to the MSE community becomes more of a "Why should I bother?" type of situation as it appears being able to do so requires a great deal of expertise.

I'm just curious what people's thoughts and/or advice is on this dilemma.

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    $\begingroup$ Related: link. There's a lot of good answers on that thread. $\endgroup$ – Rustyn Mar 15 '13 at 11:04
  • $\begingroup$ @RustynYazdanpour Thanks. I actually did a search and wasn't able to find anything relevant. I guess I missed it. $\endgroup$ – AlanH Mar 15 '13 at 11:15
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    $\begingroup$ We have lots of unanswered questions on this site. For slightly older questions, you may have "less competition" from the "experienced members". :-) $\endgroup$ – Willie Wong Mar 15 '13 at 11:17
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    $\begingroup$ @WillieWong Yeah, unfortunately, unanswered questions tend to be difficult ones...At least from what I've seen. But I will keep that in mind. $\endgroup$ – AlanH Mar 15 '13 at 11:20
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    $\begingroup$ @AlanH: try the ones with homework tag math.stackexchange.com/unanswered/tagged/homework $\endgroup$ – Willie Wong Mar 15 '13 at 11:22
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    $\begingroup$ Some people say that "homework" type questions should not be answered, but merely have hints provided. $\endgroup$ – GEdgar Mar 15 '13 at 14:29
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    $\begingroup$ @GEdgar I do not think such people would mind so much if the question was $6$ months old! $\endgroup$ – user1729 Mar 15 '13 at 16:15
  • $\begingroup$ (I am such a person, and although I do agree with myself here it is only up to a point. For example, if a question is a standard question (such as "If $G$ is a group such that $g^2=1$ for all $g\in G$ then prove that $G$ is abelian.") then I would be wary of answering it fully no matter how old. Of course, this is perhaps a moot point as such questions should be closed as duplicates.) $\endgroup$ – user1729 Mar 15 '13 at 16:17
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    $\begingroup$ Alan: by the way, what do you mean by "giving back?" You answer questions for altruistic reasons, and not because you just really enjoy doing math? By giving back, what has the SE community done for you to deserve your largesse? Seriously, I don't mean to be harsh, but seeing that line, perhaps you also need an attitude adjustment. I am here because I have fun, not because I owe anyone anything. $\endgroup$ – Ron Gordon Mar 16 '13 at 21:31
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    $\begingroup$ @RonGordon Of course I love math. If I didn't love math I wouldn't be continuing to learn mathematics. I'd rather not have to say this, but if you must know, I ran out of funds (self-funding) to complete my undergraduate degree (I won't go into more details). Instead, I've been self-learning mathematics. Since I have no resources such as a TA or a professor's office hours, I rely on MSE. So I am very grateful for this resource and the time people put into answering my questions when I get stuck; and so I'd like to pay it forward. It serves a dual purpose since I enjoy maths. $\endgroup$ – AlanH Mar 16 '13 at 23:38
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    $\begingroup$ @RonGordon Never did I imply that I was so great at mathematics that I could "help the poor" on MSE. In fact, I even stated that I'm not fast enough to answer questions and that I'm not even always sure of the ones that I do answer. So how one arrives at your conclusion, I do not know. I also see MSE as participating in a community with others who enjoy what I enjoy -- something difficult to find when you don't attend a university. If anything, what I need is more confidence in my own ability, but for the reasons stated above, I don't feel I need an "attitude adjustment." $\endgroup$ – AlanH Mar 16 '13 at 23:44
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    $\begingroup$ @AlanH: I think my words "attitude adjustment" we're a little ill-conceived and I apologize. Still, I think the idea of paying it forward a little too much to take. If you want to do that, there is no end of underserved students out there without access to SE that could use your expertise one-on-one. I have sympathy for your personal situation and I for one am grateful that SE exists and you benefit from it. But don't think that this is volunteer time here; rather, this is fun time. I no longer do mathematics as part of my day job, so this is how I unwind. $\endgroup$ – Ron Gordon Mar 17 '13 at 17:29
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    $\begingroup$ I feel very strongly about this because I see folks storm off and get angry because they view SE as something other than fun. This is a forum for those who are lucky enough to have access to constant Internet to enjoy math. I tank my stars that I am one of those fortunates, and I will pay that forward somewhere else. $\endgroup$ – Ron Gordon Mar 17 '13 at 17:34
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    $\begingroup$ @Ron My experience is that there are large variety of reasons that serve to motivate folks to contribute to MSE (e.g. learning, teaching, mental exercise, playing the rep game, having fun, etc). It helps to keep this diversity in mind when attempting to understand the behavior of other users. $\endgroup$ – Math Gems Mar 27 '13 at 2:30
  • $\begingroup$ Incorrect solutions are not solutions, there is little reason IMO to post them. $\endgroup$ – Alexey Nov 11 '14 at 13:29
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Look, first of all, you shouldn't be afraid to post here. The downvote, while a little painful to you or whoever receives it, is a good thing: it reflects the collective expertise. If you do get one, and you realize for good reason, then delete the answer. It should go through, and the effect of the downvote reversed.

(I realize that a wrong answer can mislead the OP, and this is not good, but this should still not paralyze people who think they can help. Let's call it a Good Samaritan law of SE.)

But the larger issue you bring up here is how fast people answer questions sometimes. This can be very frustrating. In the field in which I feel most comfortable answering questions (integrals), there are loads of people in many cases that can generate an answer at least as good as mine, at least as quickly. What we strive to do is come up with several different ways to solve the problem. Likely, if you are working on the problem in your own way, you will have your own way of looking at it and therefore your own contribution. And that in itself can be helpful (and earn upvotes).

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  • $\begingroup$ I have always wondered about the wisdom of deleting wrong answers. Perhaps it would be better to mark the answer as wrong in an edit (by the answerer) so others can avoid this mistake. $\endgroup$ – Baby Dragon Mar 16 '13 at 18:52
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    $\begingroup$ @BabyDragon: in principle, you're right. I too was harangued by at least one professor to do my work in pen so I can better learn from my mistakes. In practice, it is rare for people here to repeat the same mistake (at least in the posts I have seen), and the psychology about being downvoted can be a little harsh for people. In hat light, I am OK with deleting posts that turn out to be wrong and utterly misleading. $\endgroup$ – Ron Gordon Mar 16 '13 at 18:58
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    $\begingroup$ The downvote, while a little painful to you or whoever receives it, is a good thing: it reflects the collective expertise. - While upvotes, sometimes, reflects the lack of collective expertise. $\endgroup$ – Billy Rubina Mar 17 '13 at 0:54
  • $\begingroup$ @GustavoBandeira: hah! Love the Batman thing. 566 up votes?!? $\endgroup$ – Ron Gordon Mar 17 '13 at 17:35
  • $\begingroup$ You shouldn't necessarily delete a downvoted answer - if you can fix the reason for the downvote (which someone hopefully pointed out in a comment) correct it instead. That way both the OP and you learned something $\endgroup$ – Tobias Kienzler Mar 22 '13 at 10:36
  • $\begingroup$ @TobiasKienzler: totally agree - I think the downvote spurs that fixing. But it also may help the OP psychologically to delete in the meantime. Kind of an "experiencing technical problems, be back soon" kind of thing. $\endgroup$ – Ron Gordon Mar 22 '13 at 10:38
  • $\begingroup$ Good point. Though IIRC one cannot edit deleted posts... $\endgroup$ – Tobias Kienzler Mar 22 '13 at 10:39
  • $\begingroup$ @TobiasKienzler: It is in itself quite possible to edit a deleted post -- but you need 10k privileges to see the deleted post in the first place and get an edit button to click. $\endgroup$ – Henning Makholm Mar 22 '13 at 10:45
  • $\begingroup$ @HenningMakholm You can and undelete see your own deleted answers (not questions) even below 10k, but I don't remember if editing is possible then as well $\endgroup$ – Tobias Kienzler Mar 22 '13 at 10:50
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Two points about fear of downvotes in particular:

First, a downvote costs you only 2 rep, whereas an upvote gains you 10. This is for a reason.

Second, if an answer of yours is downvoted without being obviously wrong or offensive, some users of the site will be quick to provide "sympathy upvotes" until it has non-negative score. Since upvotes are worth more than downvotes, this will actually leave you adhead!

Third, if you answer does end up with a negative score, you can delete it. This cancels all reputation loss/gain from votes on it.

Fourth, I cannot count.

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I'd add my two cents. If you think that your way to answer a question will improve chances that the original poster understands it, you should go and give your answer. Mathematics is not just finding a solution to a problem, but also to understand what's behind the solution: this means that a different approach, maybe more naïve, may be useful anyway.

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You shouldn't worry too much about the reputation impact of downvotes - it may be annyoing if you're close to a new privilege, but that's just a matter of time. In fact, a justified downvote indicates that there is something for you to learn, and maybe you can fix the error (hopefully pointed out by a helpful downvoter) by an edit. To provide an example this answer by me was wrong in its first revision, and now it's even the accepted answer...

The only reason to not answer a question is that your answer has more or less already been stated, or that the question permits such a multitude of answers that you don't feel you're actually helping as much as you could by answering another question in that time.

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If you can answer the question, try to do so. Maybe someone can improve your answer, make it more specific,etc. Even a bad answer might help a person to move in the right direction.

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