Proposal: change the default home page tab of Math.SE from active to interesting.

Explanation and Rationale. Math.SE is the second most active SE site by the number of questions per day, behind StackOverflow. It is therefore reasonable for it to adapt some of the features introduced by StackOverflow to help the users efficiently navigate the list of questions. Back in 2010, Jeff Atwood wrote:

The default question ordering on the home page is a simple, flat list of the most recent (n) questions sorted by activity date — where activity is defined as a new answer, an edit, or a new question. Sophisticated, it ain’t, but it has worked well for us up to a certain volume of activity. Stack Overflow is now well beyond that volume.

I get the impression that Math.SE is growing beyond that volume too (which, by the way, I do not consider a bad thing). The quote continues:

On Stack Overflow (and only Stack Overflow) the default home page tab has changed from active to interesting. The goal is no longer to show you a simple flat list of the last (n) active questions — that’s not even possible any more based on sheer question volume — but, instead, to narrow the list to a subset of active questions that we think you will be interested in.

The algorithm that SE developers designed for this purpose is quite clever: besides the obvious things like favorite tags, it takes into account the user's pattern of answering question and some other things. (See the blog post for the full description.) Given the diverse interests of the Math.SE users, I think it would be beneficial to this site as well. It would not be hard to implement: the tab is already available as an undocumented link https://math.stackexchange.com/?tab=interesting ; all that needs to be done is a few changes in HTML markup of the homepage.

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    $\begingroup$ This has been brought to the attention of the Community Team. If we have more arguments for or against this, now is the time to present them. $\endgroup$
    – robjohn Mod
    May 8 '13 at 18:20

Unfortunately, while Math.SE is certainly one of the busier sites in the network, its daily activity levels are not yet at the point where it makes sense to switch over to the Interesting tab my default.

You can read the details of the algorithm that powers that tab here. The most relevant part, however, is that it looks at the last 3,000 questions. This makes sense on Stack Overflow where around 6,000 questions are posted every day. Math, however, only sees about 400 questions a day.

I'm told we are also currently looking at ways to improve the home page for all sites as we work on some machine learning algorithms to just generally be more clever about what we show to logged in users. It's too early to talk specifics here, but with all this in mind, we're declining this request for now.

As Math.SE grows and depending on the changes we come up with and roll out, we can certainly revisit this later.

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    $\begingroup$ Fair enough; it's good to hear that something else is in the works. ¶ Side remark: while it's true that SO currently sees 6-7 kiloquestions per day, the switch happened when they had about 2 kiloquestions (according to the quoted blog post). $\endgroup$
    – 75064
    May 10 '13 at 23:30

I would not normally post on my own question/proposal, but the answer it received tells me that I should have been more clear. The clarification ended up much too long for comments (and the former account is gone now, oops).

  1. I should have made it clear that the proposal is not for my own benefit. I know how to bookmark URLs. The goal is to improve the dynamics of the site by implementing the interface solution developed by SE specifically for high-traffic sites.

  2. Having a link posted within a Meta thread is not nearly the same as making that link a part of the main site interface. The majority of Math.SE users do not normally read meta. (Frequent meta users tend to overestimate the reach of meta. Just look at the number of views of a typical non-dramatic meta thread and compare it to the number of users of the main site. Then consider that repeated visits count as multiple views.) Also, in a month's time this thread will be a month old and off the radar even on meta.

  3. Besides the new users and established users, the site should also strive to retain formerly-active users and casual users. Such as MathOverflowers, who will occasionally click through the footer link to Math.SE after MO migrates to SE network. If the front page immediately shows them something they can contribute to, they'll be more likely to come back often.

  4. There is no need to speculate about what the algorithm would show to a new user -- you can see it yourself. Just visit both active and interesting from a browser on which you are not logged in, and compare the lists side by side. The interesting tab will have more recent questions with 0 answers, fewer old questions bumped by an edit, and fewer downvoted questions. If you do the same comparison while logged in, the difference will be more pronounced, since the algorithm then takes your mathematical preferences into account.

  5. The basic problem with the active tab on high-traffic sites is that it distributes the front-page space (an extremely scarce resource) inefficiently. Some examples:

    • there's a question with five answers, all upvoted and one accepted; matter is settled, OP is satisfied. Then someone fixes a typo in one of answers, and the question goes to the top of active tab yet again, as if it's now the site's top priority. This bumps down the questions waiting for their first answer.

    • someone retags a bunch of questions: answered or not, they all go to the top of active tab, to the annoyance of others. Meta-debate ensues.

    • someone posts the umpteenth answer to a soft question. Seeing it bumped for the umpteenth time, other users get annoyed and vote to close the question. Meta-debate ensues.

    • easy "bikeshed" questions such as $xy\le x^2+y^2$ get incessantly bumped at expense of questions with more substance. This has the potential to turn expert users off the site. "Almost all of the questions on the front page these days are homework questions or textbook exercises. I think I'll be spending a lot less time here." (source)

  6. The purpose of the interesting tab algorithm is to get more questions answered by spreading users' attention more evenly. Since it is a server-side sort, the effect is quite different from what users can achieve with client-side filtering (hiding ignored tags). Hiding by tags only suppresses undesired questions on the page; the interesting sort replaces them with other questions by digging deeper into the database.

  7. If switching to interesting as the default tab seems too drastic a measure, at least it should be made visible and placed next to active tab, to try it out. (However, I think that for best results it needs to be the default view.)

All of the above may look like trifles compared to the other issues the site faces. But it's something that can smoothen out minor annoyances before they accumulate into major disagreements.

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    $\begingroup$ Actually, repeated visits do not count as multiple views. This will only be the case for users not logged on, visiting on different sessions. But then, these visitors to meta are certainly incidental. (In the event that I'm wrong somehow, please let me know.) $\endgroup$
    – Lord_Farin
    May 11 '13 at 7:08

We've been doing some thinking and we realized since the site now gets about 630 questions a day, the active tab might not be very helpful.

As of today, we've given you the interesting tab as the default on the site. Your interesting tab is similar to what was announced for Stack Overflow with some minor changes. Instead of taking the last 3,000 active questions, we’re taking a base of the last 900 active questions to generate the list of questions.

We'll be monitoring it to see if we need to make any other changes, but we're hoping this will make the homepage a little better for most users.

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    $\begingroup$ Would it be possible to get the Interesting tab to update itself like the Active tab does, such that you get a caption saying e.g. "32 questions with new activity"? $\endgroup$
    – user354773
    Mar 4 '17 at 2:50
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    $\begingroup$ @DuaneDibbley The interesting tab driven by your user activity on the site it's not as simple as questions that have received some activity - that tab isn't built to provide updates in the same manner. $\endgroup$
    – Taryn
    Mar 6 '17 at 14:08
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    $\begingroup$ I understand that. However, combined with the way I use MSE, this actually reduces the usefulness. I know how to get the active tab back, but while somewhat better than the interesting tab, it's still not as good as it could be. I'm a bit busy at the moment, and the comment space is not enough to fully explain what'd be useful to me. I'll think about how to put it over the next few days, and if I still think it's relevant to the discussion, I'll post an answer to this question. $\endgroup$
    – user354773
    Mar 6 '17 at 16:53
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    $\begingroup$ @DuaneDibbley Either post as an answer or post a new feature request asking for something else. $\endgroup$
    – Taryn
    Mar 6 '17 at 16:54

A recent development, potentially relevant to this site: Stack Overflow may be moving away from the "interesting" sorting of questions. The new front page interface, imagined by SE VP for Engineering, looks promising:


So far the discussion of the interface involves only SO, but if they actually get this done, it shouldn't be too hard to also enable these options here.

For now, though, the "interesting" algorithm remains the best we have. But I put extra filters on top of it, by taking out

  • questions with answers
  • closed questions
  • very recent (<1 hour) questions

The result is the bookmarklet Interesting Unanswered Questions. For technical reasons, it works only when you are already on the site. My workflow is

  1. Look at the front page (ಠ_ಠ)
  2. Get bored and/or disgusted (╯°□°)╯︵ ┻━┻
  3. Hit the bookmarklet (ʘ‿ʘ)

Also works on other SE sites.

Code is included for completeness, though the easiest way to add the bookmarklet is by dragging it from the page linked above.

  • $\begingroup$ The code in the answer is Chrome-specific. But the bookmarklet currently posted here works in both Chrome and Firefox, at least. $\endgroup$
    – user147263
    Aug 1 '14 at 6:28

If you have a Math.SE button on your browser, simply copy the link in the OP and paste it into the button's properties.

  • $\begingroup$ I never actually type in the MSE url. I have a shortcut in my toolbar to ".../questions?sort=active" and whenever I want to visit MSE (which is every $5$ mins at the moment...) I just click this. There is no reason that the OP could not do the same thing, but just with ".../?tab=interesting" instead. $\endgroup$
    – user1729
    Apr 29 '13 at 13:41
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    $\begingroup$ Sure, any established user can change their links. But what this will do is put the new user in a position to see the kinds of questions we would hope to see on the site, instead of whatever happens to be recently posted when they arrive. Given the discussion that's been going on with quality of questions recently, I'm surprised this suggestion hasn't attracted more attention. $\endgroup$ Apr 29 '13 at 13:49
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    $\begingroup$ But for a new user, the algorithm that determines what is "interesting" will not really have anything to go by, and will, if it does anything, most likely not get it right. (@EricStucky). $\endgroup$ Apr 29 '13 at 14:03
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    $\begingroup$ Well I for one had no idea this feature existed, so I definitely think placing a link to this in a prominent place would be good, even if it were not to be made default behaviour. $\endgroup$ Apr 30 '13 at 0:56

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