Dear Mr. Atwood,

I have been an active user on Math.SE for several months now. I have enjoyed participation in the website together with the interaction with other mathematicians that it has brought me. I have learned much from the answers provided me by experts, and I am glad to have contributed answers of my own too. Nonetheless, I am concerned about certain trends in the past few days. I would like to voice my concerns here.

There has been nontrivial tension between some users of this website and the moderators, over various issues ranging from copyright to suspensions. The details of this are familiar history to readers. I think this is only natural in a growing website. My experience from MO and the meta.MO site is that occasional sharp discussions and debates can be productive. As long as there is significant community support for the moderators, and as long as flamewars are checked, initial friction in a website that takes actions such as closing questions is quite reasonable. While I disagreed with some of the decisions of the moderators, I did not see systemic community opposition to them. I also saw no concern about civility, at least until recently; if anything, I would have preferred more openness from the moderators and from StackExchange. (This is not to deny that there were, in fact, problems, but they seemed to be improving slowly over time, at least.)

Nonetheless, it appears to me that you have, as of late, replaced the elected moderators. Save for Isaac's resignation, I hardly see them at all anymore. I do not see significant community support behind this. On the contrary, it seems, in fact, that you have violated many community norms that have been established over time on meta.MSE. For instance, the deletion of comments without copying to meta have been frowned upon in the past. As another example, you have suggested that accomplished mathematician Pete Clark should leave and taken what seems to me an unnecessarily personal and confrontational attitude in your conversations with him. As yet another--to me, very serious--example, you have locked a post of Bill Dubuque that raised a legitimate concern. It is, of course, not expected a priori that you would be familiar with community norms, but I think it necessary if one is going to exert control over the community.

For these reasons, I would like to suggest that, regardless of whether one holds another moderator election, power be returned to the elected moderators. They are not uncontroversial, of course, but they have contributed much mathematically to the website, and have earned our respect that way. You have of course contributed to this website in a very fundamental way---its existence---but not to its content. This is not unreasonable, of course. Nonetheless, I think it would be desirable, for the sake of the community, to step back and allow for a less heavy-handed approach to moderation, especially one led by other experts. The users of this website are, after all, not immature children; they include college professors and other PhDs.

I am also deeply concerned about the recent extended suspension of the user 97832123. I do not agree with everything he has said in the past. On the other hand, his comments in Dr. Clark's answer (now deleted) struck me as hardly abusive, even if they were critical. I find it disturbing that he has been suspended until 2012, an effective ban, for such words. I believe that such actions make meta.MSE into a place deeply hostile to criticism (something which I think has happened in the past already, but it is significantly accentuated with such a drastic measure). Espcially since intellectual criticism is integral to academic progress, I strongly oppose his suspension, and request that it be overturned, or at least that a compelling reason be provided on meta.

I hope it is also clear that I do not write this out of malice or spite. I have no interest in this letter other than in the welfare of the present website. I am simply a normal, non-expert user of this website and intend to remain one. I consider Math.SE a good idea, and would like to see it grow.

I am posting this as an open letter in order that the community may signal its approval or disapproval. I hope you will consider it.

Best regards,

Akhil Mathew

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meta-comment: I think it would be good if this thread not be closed or frozen. I think it would be good for people to have a chance to state their opinions. I'm in favor of removing any uncivil comments or answers, but as long as things say civil I think it would be cathartic to let people state their opinions and see the votes. –  Noah Snyder Nov 19 '10 at 5:43
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Here is my guess at what actually happened: I am just guessing. There were some fights and some abuses, and therefore the elected moderators had a hard time in dealing with the issues in the site. They tried in best way they thought would be the best. But situation didn't much improve and in fact got too much for one of them and he snapped and resigned. Then, as expected, "all the shit went right to the higher management", ie the SE team, and Jeff got involved, and his diagnosis was that one particular user was particularly troublesome, and therefore user was suspended. –  user1119 Nov 19 '10 at 16:35
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So answer to your question of why this ban was not executed earlier, might be simply that it came to Jeff's attention only now, given that he is very busy with stackoverflow, SE network sites and other sites, and he gets to act only when problems get real bad, such as a moderator resigning. –  user1119 Nov 19 '10 at 16:36
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@George S.: not to stir things up, but merely to adjust your statement calmly before someone else takes it up again as an issue: there have not yet been elected moderators on this site. (We have of course been told that such elections will take place in the near future.) –  Pete L. Clark Nov 19 '10 at 17:34
    
@Pete Clark: Thanks for pointing out! I should have known better, since I was one of the guys who raised a fuss about "elections". –  user1119 Nov 19 '10 at 17:47

4 Answers 4

up vote 15 down vote accepted

For these reasons, I would like to suggest that, regardless of whether one holds another moderator election, power be returned to the elected moderators.

Power was never removed from the pro-tem moderators, so there is nothing to return. However, moderator elections will be held next week -- so if you wish to make changes, then you can do that by getting elected as a moderator.

I think it would be desirable, for the sake of the community, to step back and allow for a less heavy-handed approach to moderation, especially one led by other experts

There are an order of magnitude more moderator flags on this site compared to other sites of similar size in our network. Additionally, this is the only site in our network that has produced a pro-tem moderator resignation, a permanent user ban, and the self-requested deletion of multiple users. I'll gladly step back when these statistics move in line with the rest of our network.

For instance, the deletion of comments without copying to meta have been frowned upon in the past.

Comments that devolve into non-constructive argument will be deleted.

you have suggested that accomplished mathematician Pete Clark should leave

I did no such thing; I merely pointed out that participation here, as with any other public website, is completely voluntary and at-will. If the policies required to ensure civility prove onerous, there are plenty of other sites on the internet to choose from. I've pointed this out plenty of times on Meta Stack Overflow as well; it's nothing new.

(And for the record, in that same chain of comments I said I thought Pete would make a good moderator. Did I mention there will be moderator elections?)

you have locked a post of Bill Dubuque that raised a legitimate concern

Any post expressed in the form of "why does {x} suck so much?" will be locked. It's not constructive. To his credit, Bill re-opened it in a much more constructive version which I totally support (we're still thinking about the captchas).

a compelling reason be provided on meta [for the suspension]

This user was banned multiple times on Math Overflow, and generated huge numbers of moderator flags on this site as well. We now have a policy that anyone banned on Math Overflow will be banned from this site. In my experience, users this .. exceptional .. are exceptional on every website they join.

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Dear Jeff, Thank you for your hat-tip (here, and in an earlier comment) to Bill's reopened question. The recent responsiveness of the SE team to various technical requests was appreciated by me (and I'm sure by many others), and it's great to see that this is continuing, despite the current kerfuffle. Best wishes, –  Matt E Nov 19 '10 at 6:53
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To be clear, I never wrote anything remotely like "why does captcha suck so much?" in said thread. My post was meant to be constructive feedback on the captcha design. My jaw dropped when I saw it locked. –  Bill Dubuque Nov 19 '10 at 7:45
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Recall that others have expressed similar frustration with captcha, e.g. this comment with 19 upvotes that said: "This (captcha fix) is desperately needed. I've tried to clean up 15 posts with a superfluous tag and got hit by CAPTCHA seven times. I can understand the need for CAPTCHA but the threshold needs to be higher. As it stands, it's a serious disincentive to doing any kind of cleanup on more than 1-2 posts." –  Bill Dubuque Nov 19 '10 at 7:46
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@Jeff Atwood: Earlier 978 had noted that Akhil Mathew got the second highest number of votes in the last moderator election. But you disregarded it and appointed just the people you wanted. Given that history, I do not find myself at all enthusiastic to vote in the next election. What is the point? You can simply do away with the farce of an election and simply appoint your nominees. It will save the time of a lot of people. Even now you are not willing to acknowledge the malpractice and correct it. For a show of propriety you should at least now offer a moderator position to Akhil Mathew. –  user1119 Nov 19 '10 at 10:17
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George, probably a trivial point, but "nepotism" is not the right word to use; we've no evidence that there are personal connections between the overlords and the pool of nominees at the time. –  J. M. Nov 19 '10 at 13:12
    
@JM: I concede the point; I have deleted the comment with that word. What I wanted to say that the overlords executed their personal preferences overriding the will of the community. It would have been understandable if the snubbed candidate was a troublesome person. But he was quite reasonable as far I could see. And so it was an injustice to snub him. I do not know what is the correct word; if you can suggest an appropriate one, I would be glad. –  user1119 Nov 19 '10 at 13:16
    
I agree it was unjust that (if the account is 100% accurate) Akhil was never even asked after being nominated, but that is spilt beer that can no longer be returned to the bottle. I don't want to use "favoritism" since none of the overlords seemed to have (explicitly) displayed their preferences. In any event, Jeff Atwood has promised elections in the near future, and I personally hold him to that promise. If again a highly recommended nominee was snubbed, only then do we grind our axes. –  J. M. Nov 19 '10 at 13:41
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"I agree it was unjust that (if the account is 100% accurate)" ... Well, that is what came out in the comment thread at the question: meta.math.stackexchange.com/questions/1003 ... Notice the fallacy in Jeff's answer: He asks Akhil to get elected as moderator if he wants any changes in the way things are done. On the backdrop there is the fact that Akhil did win an election once. This is preposterous, when you think on it. What is the need for holding election if the results are not respected by the overlords? –  user1119 Nov 19 '10 at 13:49
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I don't know if it's worth pointing it out, but the pro-tem moderator appointments have never been elections, and it's been spelled out pretty clearly in the past. Sites are encouraged to make recommendations, but Robert can pretty much choose whomever he likes. The real mod elections are actual elections –  Michael Mrozek Nov 19 '10 at 15:35
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Well, ok, I have nothing much to say if this is indeed the case. I just didn't know. And in fact I would have to apologize for being a hothead and raising a fuss. But before that it would be nice if I can find any place where this was "spelled out pretty clearly in the past" ?? I did a few searches and I couldn't find this stated anywhere explicitly. Also the SE team could have made this clarification at any one one of the numerous times when 978 raised this matter. –  user1119 Nov 19 '10 at 16:12
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@George I thought the blog post was clear, but maybe not: "I am in the process of identifying and organizing a team of provisional Moderators from within each community (about three per site, starting about seven days into the public Beta). This is a temporary, short-term appointment". It's definitely been brought up on individual site metas before, but possibly not MSO or other more heavily trafficked places. Robert is pretty careful to call them "discussions"; it's the sites themselves who tend to use the "elections" misnomer –  Michael Mrozek Nov 19 '10 at 16:27
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@George: on that part, note that it was Tom who called it an "election" in that thread. Granted, none of the overlords made the required edits... –  J. M. Nov 19 '10 at 16:55
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@J.M.: It seems to be on my part basically a misunderstanding and a misplaced perception of unfairness, and on the SE team's part some neglect which is not malignant. So all is okay I suppose. I think I will accept your suggestion and leave this matter as "spilt beer". Thanks to everyone for the clarifications. I apologize for raising a fuss. –  user1119 Nov 19 '10 at 16:59
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Anyway, here is the next question: Are the next moderator elections going to be really serious? Are the SE team really going to respect the results? If so, is this stated by them anywhere explicitly? –  user1119 Nov 19 '10 at 17:03
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@George, @Robin, @others, I think it would be much better for the community if the results of the last moderator election were forgotten, and a new, fresh, one is held. (In particular, I do not wish for Jeff to offer anyone a moderator position.) I think a democratic election will be a good point to start anew. –  Akhil Mathew Nov 20 '10 at 0:27

I agree with most of what you said.

However, I can't agree with you about 97832123. Certainly his most recent comments don't merit a 2 year suspension on their own. Certainly I wish this situation had been handled differently (I've said before we should be ban happy during betas and I think he should have been suspended on day 2, which may have nipped some of this in the bud). However, I think banning him based on his overall attitude and lack of civility is as completely reasonable decision to make.

I wish this had been handled differently, as the same user has become a positive and basically civil contributor on MO, but I think that given where things are at the moment it was a reasonable decision to make.

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I'm certainly in agreement that 97832123 could (and should) have been suspended at earlier points for actual incivilities (e.g. in the beta). I would still object to "let's suspend him because of long-past actions" now because it seems extremely ex post facto to me. If he made incivil comments later and was suspended normally for it, no problem; as it is, especially since he has become a productive member of MO, I am worried about a ban as opposed to normal incremental suspensions. (Who will there be to ask about higher categories?) –  Akhil Mathew Nov 19 '10 at 5:48
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Keep in mind that SE's normal incremental suspensions increase much faster than MO's, so it's less of a jump than you might have thought. –  Noah Snyder Nov 19 '10 at 5:54
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Also, this is not a court of law, we're not throwing someone in jail. It's a website used by a lot of people and it's reasonable to prioritize the good functioning of the website over being fair to someone. –  Noah Snyder Nov 19 '10 at 5:56
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I agree completely with Noah's answer. User 978's comments were often constructive in content. However, far too often they were completely inappropriate in tone. It was very sad for me to watch this user, whom all of the MO moderators and many MO users spent a lot of time and effort in bringing his behavior on MO near to the acceptable range, turn around and repeat the same behavior here that he had learned was unacceptable on MO. –  Pete L. Clark Nov 19 '10 at 6:39
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It was user 978 introduced the idea that the moderators were not to be respected unless they were, in some vague sense, sufficiently mathematically senior. Virtually all the outright incivility on this site that I have witnessed can be traced back to this repugnant position. Having a mathematically senior moderator would probably be helpful to the site, especially if s/he had at the same time some actual rapport with the SE employees. But personally deriding moderators because of their (perceived) youth and inexperience is absolutely unacceptable behavior. –  Pete L. Clark Nov 19 '10 at 6:40
    
I agree with Pete; that comment was terribly poor form, but I believe he had already been suspended (for a week? month?) for that, and I believe slates should be wiped after the sentence has been served. Grudges result in recidivism, I've found... –  J. M. Nov 19 '10 at 6:44
    
@Pete, my recollection of 978's remarks on moderators is nothing like what you describe, and since he is not able to speak for himself here, it is better not to attribute any specific controversial positions such as "mods not to be respected unless...senior". I don't recall any personal disrespect much less advocacy thereof. I do recall him repeatedly expressing a preference for more mathematically advanced users among the moderators (with "this [mathematically wrongheaded comment] is why I hate that the moderators are not mathematicians" being the most strongly worded statement). –  T.. Nov 19 '10 at 6:54
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@T: This I think is one problem with deleting comments (without a trace!) on meta, poisonous as they might be: one is now forced to rely on recollection instead of being able to peer at the record. –  J. M. Nov 19 '10 at 7:01
    
At least, deleted answers remain visible to staff and high-rep users; comments do not share that privilege. –  J. M. Nov 19 '10 at 7:07
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@T..: Although some of the worst of 978's comments have been removed, most of them remain. Searching just now, I had no trouble finding comments which name specific moderators that 978 did not respect because they were not mathematically up to snuff. In fact I believe that if you contacted 978 himself, he would not disagree with my factual account. If you find otherwise, please contact me. –  Pete L. Clark Nov 19 '10 at 7:07
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@T, @J.M.: Dear T., I am not sure if you were present on the site during beta, but at that time 978 engaged in outright abuse of certain candidates for moderators (I believe including some who then became moderators), as well as other participants on the site who's views differed with his. His behaviour at that time was obnoxious in the extreme; his subsequent comments, such "... I hate that the moderators are not mathematicians", were a fairly pale shadow of these earlier comments, but for those who saw his behaviour during beta, and who also remember his behaviour from the early days of ... –  Matt E Nov 19 '10 at 7:08
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@pete I would also say this meta.math.stackexchange.com/posts/1003/revisions goes directly toward that "frog boiling" that I found so upsetting. Not the only example, either.. –  Jeff Atwood Nov 19 '10 at 7:08
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... MO, it is hard not to view his more recent comments through the lens shaped by those earlier ones. That being said, I found his most recent comments rather benign. But if I was told to regard his current suspension as a retroactive penalty for his earlier abusive behaviour (the under-moderated behaviour that Pete refers to above), I wouldn't find this unreasonable. –  Matt E Nov 19 '10 at 7:11
    
@Matt: thanks for the explanation, I only joined during the public beta phase of this site, and was certainly not wading in meta in those days. But I was of the impression that he was already caned on the wrists and ankles, so to speak. If indeed he has not yet been called to account for his previous transgressions, then I would have to agree with Jeff's actions of giving him plenty of time to chill out. –  J. M. Nov 19 '10 at 7:17
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@T: Seen this already? –  J. M. Nov 19 '10 at 7:49

Dear Jeff Atwood:

Thanks for your quick reply, and I'm very sorry in being so slow to respond myself (I have an entirely filled schedule on Fridays).

First, I am glad that the moderators on this site still hold power. I was concerned that the specific website functions (such as moderation) were appearing to be taken over by the SE team, which appeared to have assumed a greater role than before (i.e. bug fixes). Second, I would like to observe (though this has been done to some extent in other comments by Pete Clark and Matt E) that the mistreatment of the current moderators was almost entirely due to one user, who is now banned. I am in disagreement in the rationale for this ban as currently timed (for reasons more philosophical than anything), but the point remains that the outright incivility that occurred on MSE and meta.MSE was largely due to him. In particular, the rationale for strong SE control on this particular website appears to have thus evaporated. I hope nonetheless that he will be restored eventually as a normal user, provided that he does not engage in the same abuse that he has done in the past, as his qualifications as an MO user are quite strong.

Regarding your exchange with Dr. Clark, I think it better not to debate the matter further, as I cannot see how it will be productive. Finally, I must disagree that Bill's original question was problematic: it was irate, but understandably so, and in no way abusive of other users. (In any case, I think it a much better solution to edit such questions rather than locking them--and thereby stifling discussion--if the wording is deemed intemperate, though I am not sure I understand this assessment.)

I hope that these problems will fade away as a new crop of moderators is elected. In any case, the present thread appears to have made a nonzero amount of progress.

Regards,

Akhil

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I usually found 978's remarks quite realistic. In the most recent one I saw he expressed confidence in the SE site software but not in SO culture transposed to a math site. Seems like intelligent commentary to me and unless he posted death threats, pyramid scheme solicitations or challenged SE managers to a duel I can't imagine what the site management thinks it was protecting us (or itself) from that requires his absence for over a year. I will miss his contributions here ... to the extent that I continue participating in the site or the meta. Who knows, as an outspoken user I could be "next".

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Much as 978... has sometimes acted like a grain of sand inside an oyster, as I recall there was nothing even faintly offensive in his last few comments in that other thread. He did ask that Jeff apologize to Pete for some of what he said (and I'm not entirely sure why "you're a website administrator" is offensive, either). In any event, maybe it is a miracle that the main site is actually more tranquil than meta. –  J. M. Nov 19 '10 at 6:40
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@T: I would hope that you are not "next"; I am a fan of what you write, and it would be a damned shame if they boot you. –  J. M. Nov 19 '10 at 6:42
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@j.m. meta exists as a "behind the curtain" precisely for that reason; users should be able to ask and answer questions without worrying about governance issues. –  Jeff Atwood Nov 19 '10 at 6:47
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@Jeff: certainly; I am perfectly aware of the mental stress moderating a site with very active and outspoken users entails (having been both a problem user and a moderator in other places, a long, long time ago), and I am thankful that you are here to discuss this. However, I am not entirely sure of how hunky-dory some of the recent actions taken here are, which is why I am curious as how we all got into a steaming melee. –  J. M. Nov 19 '10 at 6:55
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@JM, @T, @GeorgeS and to all the others that are going to read this at some point. I want to attempt to clarify something and stick my nose in where it does not belong. The "you're a website administrator" comment is offensive to those of us of the SO persuasion because in our world, "administrator" does not mean "someone who ensures that the business is run appriopriately" as it does in academia (according to my understanding of academia) but is more akin to "janitorial staff" or "engine mechanic". Even if you owned a cleaning company, you would not want to be "a janitor". (continued) –  jcolebrand Nov 20 '10 at 6:03
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(continuing) And if you were an Engineer (PE), you would not want to be an "engine mechanic". It's as tho I were to refer to those on here with PhDs as being "high school math teachers" or "tutors". Effectively you compared @JeffAtwood to being the equivalent of a tenured professor being called a tutor. That's where the disparity comes into play. Yes, there are plenty of Systems Administrators in our world, and yes they do play an important role and there are many types of sysadmins, but that is not what Jeff does and is not an applicable title. –  jcolebrand Nov 20 '10 at 6:05
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I hope that is clarifying in some way, and I hope that you understand the intent of my interjection. I think it's best to push for elections (civil, community endorsed and supprted, so maybe after the upcoming US holiday) as soon as is reasonable. We from SO-land ( conspiratorial wink ) want you guys to rule your own spot of land on the internet. NOTE: I have no affiliation with Jeff or SOIS other than I use their software and learn from my interactions with others on SO. If you want to find me for discussion I'm usually on chat.meta.stackoverflow.com M-F 9-6 Central. Cheers. –  jcolebrand Nov 20 '10 at 6:08
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@drachenstern: thanks for your comments. I find them informative, although I still don't quite get how "administrator" is pejorative. Before I wrote the comment in question I actually briefly searched to try to find Jeff Atwood's proper title: I didn't find anything. (In his profile he calls himself "Stack Overflow Valued Associate #1", which I read as some kind of inside joke. In my experience, "associate" is a mid-level title, implying that someone else is more senior.) So I reached for what I thought was very neutral language... –  Pete L. Clark Nov 20 '10 at 11:42
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...I do wish that Mr. Atwood had replied to me (even privately) to acknowledge that it was a misunderstanding rather than an insult. A little bit of a sign that he is a human being and capable of admitting misunderstanding / mistakes / imperfect word choices would go a long way with me. Or is acknowledging fallibility another cultural difference? (This is not a sarcastic question.) –  Pete L. Clark Nov 20 '10 at 11:48
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@George: well, in my (very limited) understanding Jeff Atwood is one of the creators/founders of a large and successful company of which this site is only a very small part. But as I recently said elsewhere, we're not having a personal conversation, and I don't feel that all of the many facets of this person's life are relevant or helpful to the discussion of meta/math.SE. I'm talking to him in his capacity in a specific role, which is as someone who is taking administrative (or, if you like, "executive", "directorial") action on this particular website.... –  Pete L. Clark Nov 20 '10 at 12:59
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...And again, the context here is that he identified himself as a "policeman" and then asked me rhetorically if I spoke to actual police officers in the way I was speaking to him. It's pretty frustrating to communicate with someone who uses metaphorical language in this way. Hence my response. It certainly didn't have the effect that I had intended. –  Pete L. Clark Nov 20 '10 at 13:10
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@George: I wouldn't call it an argument: it was more perplexing than anything else, and was not upsetting to me at least. But regarding your last comment: no one here is the king or president of a nation. If I may dare to reveal some of the actual underlying issues: the problem is that unlike a policeman, king or president, Mr. Atwood is not a member of the math.stackexchange community: he has 0 questions and 0 answers on the site. So when he says that he is more qualified than everyone else to intervene, many people are not going to be happy about it. –  Pete L. Clark Nov 20 '10 at 13:23
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@Pete L. Clark: I too support that he is perhaps not qualified to interfere in the day-to-day housekeeping matters in the website. But perhaps he is more experienced in dealing with problem users and identifying the root causes of any major trouble. For example there is this user "Geoffrey Chetwood" in all three of Stackoverflow, Serverfault and Superuser sites. The username appears to be a parody of Jeff Atwood and it is very possible that Mr. Atwood gained some considerable experience by dealing with him. This user was also banned; see here: stackoverflow.com/users/5640 –  user1119 Nov 20 '10 at 13:28
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@drachenstern: You said you've been "reading three different websites following the threads" on the problem here. Could you please provide links to these sites. –  Bill Dubuque Nov 20 '10 at 15:34
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@BillDubuque somebody else was a member of math.SE and passed a link about the voluntary quitting of a moderator (a big deal in any SE community) into the aforementioned chat.meta.SO and a few of us perused the link. It wasn't being explicitly discussed outside of that. You are correct that I'm new here, and I knew I was sticking my nose in where it didn't belong earlier, but I only wanted to make the one observation. This isn't my fight, and I have no direct interest in any outcome, as vulgar as that may come across. I just saw a potential upsetting over a definition. –  jcolebrand Nov 23 '10 at 15:40

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