# What do you really like about working with/contributing to math-SE?

I've come across so many posts here and on the "main" math-SE site that voice complaints, frustrations, pet-peeves, grievances, or else are critical of another post/question, user, OP, etc. It is really an energy sapper! Certainly not a boost for morale.

Since I'm pretty new here, and feeling a bit ambivalent about the community here, or lack thereof, I'd really like to know what keeps others here? Given all the frustrations and pet peeves, what keeps you coming back, logging in, participating, contributing?

I really am serious: I'd really like to know, plus I think shifting gears for a moment might help balance the (recent?) discord/tension. I'm not in a position to know whether what I perceive to be as tension and impatience, bordering on intolerance, is a "fact of life" here/ "the norm"...or if it cycles, like all growing communities do, between "better times" and "worse times"...slanting toward unity, then tilting towards discord... and individually, between feeling exhilarated and feeling near-burn-out.

Just thought I'd ask. It is very likely that people here are happier than they may appear. After all, I think humans are wired to notice what's amiss and what's gone wrong than we are to noting what's going well!

Edit: (Addendum) I am reluctant to accept a single answer; the answers and comments have been overwhelmingly supportive and informative. With respect to the "post a question"/"accept an answer" norm for math.SE, is that also the norm here on meta.SE? I sought out input from all interested users regarding the subject line of this thread; everyone is unique, and so I wouldn't even think of establishing criteria with which to evaluate one user's input/answer/comment against another. I did make a point of "upvoting" a good number of contributions, however. Thanks to all who have "chimed in," and any additional answers and comments are most certainly welcome.

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You also voiced a complaint, so it is a bit strange that you complain about the complaints being energy-sappers. –  Phira Apr 25 '11 at 9:46
I like the question. @user... I don't read the present question as a complaint, just as a suggestion to take a breath. @Amy this is not an answer, but just a thought: the fact that people discuss community policies is a good thing. The fact that discussions sometimes get heated might also be regarded as a good thing, since it indicates that people here care about mathematics and about pedagogy. Of course, it is important that discussions should remain civil, but to me it seems like they usually do. –  Alex B. Apr 25 '11 at 9:52
@user...It seems quite revealing that the only thing you commented on was that one sentence. Yes, complaints are going to arise; I have no objection to that fact. But there's so much more that can be discussed than what's wrong with questions, and worse, questioners. @Alex: Understood. It is certainly clear that people are invested here, and that is a good thing. –  amWhy Apr 25 '11 at 10:01
I liked the idea of getting help with mathematics from people who were concerned about mathematics. However there is far more baggage attached to this website than you'd think judging by what's on the front page & because of this I'm out. –  sponsoredwalk Apr 25 '11 at 10:35
@Amy "It seems quite revealing that the only thing you commented on was that one sentence." You are a user here longer than I am and your complaint is part of the complaints that I see, so why wouldn't you answer your own question for me? –  Phira Apr 25 '11 at 11:12
@Alex, @Amy: I'm not 100% certain, but I guess that user9325 didn't get notifications of your comments. (@user would do, or @use, or @user9325, or even @user93. would work - but only one trailing period is removed.) –  Hendrik Vogt Apr 25 '11 at 13:19
@Hen Also only the first @name is notified, so Amy will not be notified about your above comment. –  Bill Dubuque Apr 25 '11 at 18:48
@Bill: I know more about comment notifications than you might think. The "@Alex" was to notify Alex, the "@Amy" was to make it clear to Amy that the comment is also addressed at her - she gets notified anyway as it's her post. She also got notified of your comment and of this very comment of mine. –  Hendrik Vogt Apr 25 '11 at 19:13
@Hen Yes, but it may mislead other's into thinking that the second @Amy works generally (many folks mistakenly believe that). –  Bill Dubuque Apr 25 '11 at 19:20
@Bill: You're right, maybe I should have mentioned that two "@" don't cause two notifications. (I was too busy correcting your "Amy will not be notified" :-)) Have a look at the Update in this answer of mine to see why I wrote "@Alex, @Amy". (It's really good than Glen posted that question.) –  Hendrik Vogt Apr 26 '11 at 17:49
@hen Thanks for helping raising awareness of this issue. I created a meta thread here. –  Bill Dubuque Apr 26 '11 at 18:37
@Amy It's probably better that you don't accept an answer. This will cause the question to occasionally get bumped to the top, so that new (meta) users will see it. –  Bill Dubuque Apr 30 '11 at 20:11
@Bill: No, a question will get bumped only if it has no upvoted answers. (So that shouldn't keep you from accepting an answer, @Amy.) @Bill: I could indeed have omitted the "@" before Amy, but I think it's a good eyecatcher ... –  Hendrik Vogt Apr 30 '11 at 20:34
@Hen That's news to me. Do you know a link that confirms that? Even if so, I think that folks tend to pay more attention to questions without accepted answers. –  Bill Dubuque Apr 30 '11 at 20:37
@Bill: See Jeff's comment here. –  Hendrik Vogt May 1 '11 at 7:36
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Dear Amy,

I contribute on MathSE for the same reasons that I contribute on MO:

I enjoy thinking about math, and solving math problems. I also enjoy talking about and explaining mathematical ideas. MO and MathSE provide the opportunity to do all this.

Also, as a professional mathematician (and one who is getting older every day!) I am interested in finding ways to keep myself sharp: both to practice line-by-line technical reasoning, and to keep the big picture in focus. MathSE and MO provide chances to both answer precise technical questions in a broad range of subjects, and to try to give accurate but concise and readable descriptions of the big picture, and so I also regard my participation here as part of my ongoing professional training regimen.

Yet another motivation is that my area of mathematics (number theory and the Langlands program) has something of a reputation for being technical and recondite in its aims and methods. This reputation is not completely undeserved, but I like to do what I can to counter it, and participating here gives a chance to do this.

Finally, I like the idea of mathematics presenting a pleasant face to the world, and I think that contributing here helps in some small way with this.

Regards,

Matthew

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+1 for each of paragraphs 2, 3, and 5. (Not 4 only because I don't work in number theory.) –  Willie Wong Apr 25 '11 at 16:55
+1 for paragraph 4, because I work in number theory. ;p –  mixedmath Apr 28 '11 at 4:16
Well I guess I wont be posting my answer(it would essentially just be "echo echo echo"). –  BBischof May 1 '11 at 15:16

The signal-to-noise ratio here is great. The Stack Exchange team has worked very hard to provide a platform with tools to keep it great: the voting system, community moderation, etc. Reputation may seem silly, but it is "an important form of silliness": getting upvotes is psychologically rewarding and incentivizes participation in the aggregate whether any particular person is willing to admit this or not. Community moderation makes getting rid of off-topic posts easy and helps ensure that there is a minimum level of effort put into on-topic posts. (The criticism you see is just community moderation in action: don't worry too much about it.) It also helps individual users become more invested in the success of the site.

In addition, I am very interested in math education, and math.SE is an easy and efficient way for me to help educate others. Not only is it fun, but SE questions and answers have relatively high Page Rank, so it is relatively easy for people to find good questions and answers on Google. Thus a single good answer might eventually be read by hundreds or thousands of people. My most popular answer has 26,000 views because it was linked to in an article about Stack Exchange on TechCrunch. It is far from perfect or complete, but it was able to reach many people who (I hope!) learned something from it.

In the long run, I hope math.SE will be a step towards a larger dialogue between mathematicians and non-mathematicians facilitated by online tools. The public generally has no idea what mathematicians do and what mathematics is really about (in stark contrast to, say, physics, where they at least have some vague idea); one of my long-term goals is to help change this, and I think math.SE is as good a starting place as any.

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@Qiaochu: Great answer. Aahhh...I too am deeply interested in math education: and in answer to my own question, that is a great motivator for me, as well as my love for math. I wouldn't have even "crossed the threshold" of this site's "doors" if I wasn't inspired by the breadth and depth of questions, coupled with the open invitation to people at all levels of mathematical engagement. –  amWhy Apr 25 '11 at 16:35
@Qiaochu: I'm not so sure about how great the "signal to noise" ratio is here. I haven't yet encountered a Q&A community with as much asymmetry, or what strikes me as intolerance of (and hostility toward) what seems to be the perspectives of a minority of folks here, growing smaller with each resignation, migration, of key folks. Just growing concerned, that's all. Certainly, I can migrate elsewhere (clearly, I'd hardly be missed). From what I've seen on Math.SE, confirmed here, I believe this site is failing miserably to extend an "open invitation to all levels of mathematical engagement" –  amWhy Apr 28 '11 at 0:30
@Amy: I'm not sure we mean the same thing by "signal-to-noise ratio." I mean two things by this: 1) that the average question is more interesting than the average question on other math forums. This comes about as a result of moderation. 2) that the average answer is more helpful than the average answer on other math forums. This is partly because we absorbed a decent population of users from MathOverflow in the early days, as well as moderation and the voting system. I don't see what any of the things you pointed out have to do with signal vs. noise on the main site, as opposed to meta. –  Qiaochu Yuan Apr 28 '11 at 0:34
(cont.) I also fail to see what any of the things you pointed out have to do with levels of mathematical engagement. I have seen no evidence that we discriminate against people based on mathematical level, if that's what you mean. What we discriminate against is a lack of effort on the part of the questioner, which is correlated to, but conceptually distinct from, mathematical level. Our goal is not to degenerate into a place filled with homework questions and spam, and while this requires aggressive moderation and other policies on our part, I think it is justifiable for the sake of... –  Qiaochu Yuan Apr 28 '11 at 0:39
...preserving a useful resource. I am not sure what you mean by intolerance of and hostility towards a minority perspective; could you be more precise? –  Qiaochu Yuan Apr 28 '11 at 0:40
@Qiaochu: You're right; what you mean by "signal to noise" ratio is not what I took it to mean. There's an awful lot of jargon used here; I'm doing my best to pick it up. –  amWhy Apr 28 '11 at 1:39
(cont)...Regarding the asymmetry I'm noticing, I meant more so among users/answerers. As for the intolerance of and hostility towards minority perspectives, I'm referring to the "community" of users engaged on meta and in answering questions on math.SE. The resignations, migration of key users, who happened to hold perspectives similar to mine, and still-current users who run against the grain are effectively being winnowed out, perhaps by design... –  amWhy Apr 28 '11 at 1:40
(cont.) I will collect some questions of varying levels of "sophistication" along with the answers and comments that follow, to help point out specifically the ways in which "low brow" vs. "high brow" user-questioners are spoken to, addressed, etc in very different ways, apart from the level at which a question is answered. The same difference can be seen when comparing questions from high-rep vs. low-rep users. I do need to take a break from this site, though, because I find the elitism here, and the attitudes towards so many users to be terribly disturbing. –  amWhy Apr 28 '11 at 1:41
@Amy: I would like to help address these issues you are bringing up, but I am still not sure what you mean. Which users and perspectives are you referring to? If you are hesitant to be more specific about your concerns in public, feel free to email me at qchu@mit.edu. –  Qiaochu Yuan Apr 28 '11 at 1:49
@Amy: I agree that these expectations look hostile, but some of them are geared towards preventing users from getting free answers to their homework questions, and I personally believe this to be sufficient justification for a little hostility. Accepting answers has less to do with reputation and more to do with showing respect for the answerer, who after all is a total stranger and has no obligation to help you. Searching Wikipedia, Mathworld, and the list of existing math.SE questions takes very little time; all three are indexed on Google, and Googling should already be the first thing any –  Qiaochu Yuan Apr 28 '11 at 2:09
(cont.) person, in almost any situation, does first when trying to answer a question. Certainly we don't expect a new user to be aware of all of these things; that's what comments are for. I agree that they are often phrased in a hostile manner, and this is something we should work on as a community. –  Qiaochu Yuan Apr 28 '11 at 2:12
@Qiaochu: I'm not contesting the expectations held; yes, ideally, we would hope that learners have done a preliminary search, have made an effort, are not expecting to have homework done "for" them, etc. It is reasonable to make such suggestions in the form of comments to the OP. It's the tone in which the comments are often made: short, curt, scolding, etc. I have a PhD in CogSci (mathematics & Cog), a PhD in Philosophy, but returned to math to earn my MS, now working to PhD. So I bring with me an acute sensitivity to the factors that best promote (or inhibit) mathematics learning. –  amWhy Apr 28 '11 at 2:26
@Amy: point taken. I would be happy to see a meta thread on this subject; I think this is well worth bringing to the attention of more users. –  Qiaochu Yuan Apr 28 '11 at 2:43
@Qiaochu, concerning "exemption for high rep users": I'm not sure if this is true for math.sx, but on tex.sx I've seen bad questions, bad answers and wrong comments (with lots of upvotes!) by high rep users, which are usually not followed by curt and scolding comments. This can indeed leave the impression that double standard are applied. –  Hendrik Vogt Apr 28 '11 at 7:13
@Amy: Your last comment sums it up very well, it's really the tone that makes the difference. (And I'm pretty sure I'm not the only one appreciating your comments here.) –  Hendrik Vogt Apr 28 '11 at 7:14
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One big difference between Math Stackexchange and Mathoverflow is that you don't need to be a mathematician or even a math graduate student to participate and contribute to math stackexchange. I am an electrical engineering grad student and I love this community. It gives me a chance to not only learn new things every few days, but it also helps me remain sharp in the few math topics that I have some knowledge of.

I feel that moderation and the general management of the site is pretty good. As Qiaochu Yuan mentioned, the Signal to Noise Ratio is very high here and this partly due to the maturity of the community here. All online communities have disputes and disagreements and squabbles. Don't be too worried by those kinds of things. Take advantage of the fact that there are so many knowledgeable people here who are willing to spend their time and effort to answer math questions. This site is great simply for the wealth of knowledge that its participants have.

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I've um'ed and ah'ed about contributing to this, but having just left my 9th answer, I'll pitch in.

The reason why I hesitate is that I don't consider myself to be a contributor to maths-SX, so in the strictest sense I can't answer this question. However, I'm a "conscientious objector" in that my non-participation is based on a deliberate choice rather than apathy, so perhaps my reasons for not participating will be of use to you.

I probably need to start by explaining that, since the first two paragraphs are apparently contradictory. I keep an eye on this place as I think that it is a great idea in principle. I do participate in two other SE sites (MathOverflow and TeX-SX) and I really like the model. But as yet, I haven't figured out exactly how to participate here and until I do that then I'm not going to do more than what I currently do. And that is to drop by every now and then to see if there is a question to which I happen to just know the answer. Certainly, I don't put any effort in to answering questions here beyond the effort of writing it out. On MO or TeX-SX then I will willingly take up a challenge and work at something, but here I won't. That's what I mean by "not participating".

My reasons for doing that are nothing to do with the atmosphere here on meta. I'm a veteran of MathOverflow's meta (indeed, I suggested it and was the first non-moderator to sign up) and have had many blazing arguments with many different users (including the guy who set up MO) so I'm not afraid of a bit of fire on meta. But I think that the atmosphere on meta is another symptom of what keeps me from joining in fully.

The truth is that I haven't worked out yet what this place is for. And I'm afraid that the answers given previously don't help me figure that out.

I am a professional mathematician. That means that I get paid for doing maths. Actually, I get paid 45% for doing maths, 45% for communicating it, and 10% for ... er ... for helping ensure that the university runs well. So when I do a mathematical activity, I have at the back of my mind "If my employer walked in right now, would I quickly change to a different tab in the browser, or not?". Now, I can justify lots of mathematical activities. MathOverflow is fairly easy, but this place is hard. It seems to fall between two things. Let me deal with them separately.

Teaching: This seems obvious. By answering questions here, I am helping people to learn. Except that the part of my job that is teaching is not "teaching anyone who wants to learn" (would that it were!) but "teaching the students at my university". There aren't that many students from my university here (are there any?) and if there were, it would be an incredibly inefficient way of teaching them. I would be wiser to invest my time in trying to reach the students right in front of me than those half the way around the world.

Problem Solving: There are no end of problems in mathematics, and whilst we only write up the ones where we think we have something new to say, I'm sure I'm not the only mathematician who doesn't really care if a problem has been solved before or not, the important thing is: can I solve it? But with so many, how does one choose which to solve? An easy way to choose is: someone else wants to know the answer. So this site seems perfect for that. Except that the level of the problems here are not the level that I particularly want to get my teeth in to. Basically, I already get my "problem solving" hit from MO. I don't get it here. Moreover, since there are so many problems out there that I could spend time on, it would be wiser of me to invest my time in trying to solve those that might help me with my actual research than just those I happened upon whilst reading some bizarre website.

I have a suspicion that this site is far more "Ask an expert" than any other of the SE network sites. I don't know enough about the data explorer to do this, but I'd like to compare the various sites on their "questioner" and "answerer" populations. A quick look at the top users shows that very few of them ask questions here. Certainly, I can't think of a single question that I could ask here (where I really wanted to know the answer). On MO and TeX-SX, I feel that I am both an asker and an answerer. Here I would be/am just an answerer. At the risk of seeming a bit cold-blooded, what's in it for me?

Now, I am an expert in some things. There are a couple of things about which I am one of the best people in the world to ask. But they don't come up that often here (they don't come up that often on MO either), and there are certainly plenty of experts already here in the wider area that I know about. So you don't need me here. My not participating doesn't hold Maths-SX back in any significant way.

So, in summary, why should I participate in an SE site?

1. To learn. But as a mathematician, there are more efficient ways for me to learn.
2. To help. But there are more immediate people who need my help.

Now, I realise that this all reads very cold and calculating. It has to be precisely because I am not very good at being cold and calculating when faced with a problem to be solved. If I jumped in here, I would be going crazy trying to answer questions left, right, and centre; sure that I had the right answer that was going to enlighten the questioner and open their eyes to the beauty of mathematics. On TeX-SX and MO I can be like that because I know that I will also gain: they are true exchanges. Here, I don't see the exchange.

As a last ditch attempt to dispel the calculating nature of this, let me add that second to proving a sneaky theorem is that moment when you see an explanation hit home with a student. To watch their face when it all becomes clear and, for a moment, they glimpse Mathematics with a capital Mathematics is a wonderful experience. To quote:

Rose: I can see everything. All that is, all that was, all that ever could be.
The Doctor: That's what I see. All the time. And doesn't it drive you mad?

When teaching, those are the moments that make it worthwhile. Show me how I can get that hit here, and I might just join in.

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Sadly, the point about "Ask an expert" / no exchange is all too true... (and thanks for writing about it) –  Grigory M Apr 30 '11 at 19:12
Andrew: There are at least three of us here. –  Raeder May 1 '11 at 13:44
@Raeder: Ah, but if the third is like the two that I (now) know of, then you three aren't the students I need to reach! –  Andrew Stacey May 1 '11 at 17:29
I think in some sense the right people to be answering questions here are undergraduate math majors. They still have some questions that they can ask and so it's more of a real exchange. –  Noah Snyder May 1 '11 at 23:42
@Noah: which prompts the question: what are you doing here? –  Andrew Stacey May 2 '11 at 18:13
Like you I pop in now and then. My reputation is almost entirely from questions and answers during the first week and a half of the site (when I was the top rep user). I was involved then because I wanted to make sure math.SE got off the ground. –  Noah Snyder May 2 '11 at 18:41
@Noah: Ah, I had a false impression of you as one of the "high octane" users - possibly garnered from those first few weeks. –  Andrew Stacey May 2 '11 at 18:47
@Noah: Dear Noah, There are questions here that only a very select few undergrads would be able to answer, e.g. on algebraic and differential geometry, algebraic and analytic number theory, and algebraic and differential topology. On the other hand, at least some of those same questions (although not all) would be closed if they appeared on MO. Regards, –  Matt E May 3 '11 at 14:53

Despite my annoyance with imperatives and homeworks, I like answering the questions here. There is very little noise here; even what you seem to notice as discord here at meta is at least -substantive- disagreement. The questions are all about math from easy to hard. I find it a good way to learn about math that I never studied, and to help out in places where I have.

As to frustrations and pet peeves, I think it is mostly just that they are not big enough a deal to really affect things; we are just pursuing doubts here. (though of course some people are reasonably perturbed by much bigger things). Anyway, meta.math.SE is not the same thing as math.SE.

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Thanks for the reminder...that meta.math.SE isn't the same thing as math.SE. For me, in general, I "do" and "think about doing" simultaneously, e.g. math and meta-math for me go hand in hand...but they are distinct, albeit over-lapping at times. Yes, I do need to disambiguate discussions about math.SE (here), and the math.SE forum itself. I guess it's just a bit frustrating because many of the sentiments expressed here seem to spill over to the math.SE sight, or start there and continue here... –  amWhy Apr 25 '11 at 15:57
Perhaps you've hit on what I think could make a difference. Perhaps we could be more judicious about the comments we leave on math.SE. I'd like to see comments on math.SE to be more directly related to the post at hand, with uncertainties of the merits of a post expressed directly to the one who posts. In short, I'd like to raise the level of direct interaction with the individuals posting questions, and less in the way of "side-line" conversations "amongst ourselves" about non-mathematical content, as though the OP isn't present. Those conversations belong here? –  amWhy Apr 25 '11 at 16:23
But we keep seeing pleas for exactly the opposite, e.g. when people vote to close posts (a controversial issue on all the big SE sites), it is considered by many to be polite/constructive to explain in a comment why you voted to close. This is necessarily a "meta" comment regarding the post. The system doesn't have a "meta" page for every question in the way Wikipedia does, so there's no easy way to keep those comments separate. –  Matt Apr 25 '11 at 19:42
@matt I think our network guidance is, only leave comments when you consider the post "close to the edge" and not clearly out of bounds. The interesting cases in the network are the ones where it is almost on-topic but not quite; everything else should be covered by the standard close descriptions and voting itself without need for excess (meta) verbosity cluttering up the page.. –  Jeff Atwood Apr 28 '11 at 5:09

Personally I am pretty new here as well and probably is not in a position to speak for the community, but from personal experience with other sites having civil debates and some doubts is a good thing and is a sign of maturity.

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The most interesting aspect for me is the "elementary puzzle questions", questions which are natural, require some thought, and are elementary in nature. In that respect, the advantage of Math.SE over MathOverflow is that the questions are actually elementary, whereas in MO they usually involved subjects I know nothing about.

The next best thing is "elementary nuggets", which are similar to the previous but are easier. Good examples for me are questions of the sort "find a combinatorial proof of this nice identity". These are also enjoyable, and their advantage is that they don't take up as much time.

What I like least are questions of the sort "how do I simplify $\sqrt{27}$?", which I don't usually bother to answer. Fortunately, there are lots of questions whose level of difficulty lies between "trivialities" and "nuggets", which are interesting enough to spare a thought while being easy enough to not distract me from "real" work.

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$(1)$ I participate and returned because I learn a lot here (or rather, math.se): about math from other users, about common "stumbling blocks" encountered by students, and about what helps people learn and come to understand concepts with which they are struggling.
$(2)$ I participate and returned because I savor those precious, albeit sometimes rare, moments when those posting questions experience an "Aha!!!" moment.