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I've become weary of hearing this phrase. I'm not completely convinced that it was ever truly useful, but if it was, I think that it has long since outlived its usefulness.

To be clear, I sincerely believe that Stack Overflow and Stack Exchange have made the internet a better place and will probably continue to do so for the foreseeable future - but while such a thing is easy to see in aggregate, on a large scale, it's a worse-than-useless metric at the scale of an individual question/answer thread.

My problems with this phrase are:

  1. It is completely subjective. In fact, the words "better" or "best" are widely considered a red flag in questions themselves, and in some cases the automatic filters will kick in and warn the asker that the question is probably too subjective.

    Reasonable people will never agree on a clear definition of what makes the internet "better", because the internet is vast and different people use it for different purposes. More often than not, the definition of "better" changes from moment to moment and reflects little more than the author's personal preference.

    On most sites, we judiciously tell members to avoid phrases like these; how, then, can we expect to be taken seriously as community leaders if our raison d'être is predicated on such a similarly vague platitude?

  2. It has troublesome implications with regard to closing/deleting questions. The message it sends is that when we choose to close or delete a question, we are declaring that it makes the internet a worse place - or, at the very least, does not make it any better. This is offensive and unfair to the author and needlessly ramps up the level of butthurt.

    On many if not most sites, we are very careful to tell people that closing/deleting a question does not necessarily mean that we think it is entirely without merit - just that it doesn't belong here, and that they are more than welcome to take another kick at the can provided that they follow the guidelines in the FAQ. It's much harder to get this message across when we supposedly have this doctrine that any content which "makes the internet better" is definitively allowed.

  3. It's just obsolete; it's incompatible with much more current and clearly-worded essays and policies such as Good Subjective, Bad Subjective, Real Questions Have Answers, The Future of Community Wiki, Gorilla vs. Shark, The Trouble With Popularity, and more. Is it OK for people to just ignore two years worth of rich history and extensive debate, blogging, and podcasting in favour of some ancient handwavey one-liner? That seems oddly like representing a case in civil court by holding up the Ten Commandments.

Should anybody still be quoting "makes the internet a better place" as an actual, practical criteria for whether or not a question should remain open or closed? In my 2+ years of experience on Stack Overflow/Stack Exchange, I don't think I've ever actually seen it help to resolve a debate; it usually only succeeds in raising everybody's blood pressure by raising the stakes - instead of a relatively simple analysis of whether a question actually belongs on a site as defined by that site's own rules and guidelines, it escalates into a pissing match over whether or not the thread has any redeeming value and who has the burden of proof.

Can we please lay this doctrine to rest quietly alongside Community Wiki questions, the "Subjective and Argumentative" close reason, and other ideas that sounded way better in theory than they actually worked in practice?

Of course we all want to make the internet a better place, and we all probably believe that's exactly what we're doing, regardless of our actual approach; so, recognizing that, can we just declare once and for all that it's essentially just mental masturbation, and start using the more practical criteria we've been given over the last 1.5 years?

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At first I downvoted as a knee-jerk reaction to everything else that's been going on here, but this is a really good read, and brings up some very interesting questions about the foundations of the site. Not that I'm sure how this should be answered or if it can be, but since everything else is up for questioning, why not this? –  casperOne Mar 5 '12 at 3:03
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Making the Internet a better place is not just an empty platitude; it's the very foundation that the SE Network was built on. I think the real hand-waving that's occurring is users who choose to dismiss moderators as zealots, and their actions as revising history, rather than having a genuine debate about the deleted posts on their own merit. –  Robert Harvey Mar 5 '12 at 3:17
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I'm relatively new-ish around here, but I've always thought of "making the internet better" as an aggregate measure. To apply it to a single post definitely seems like a confusion of scale to me. I'm interested to see this raised. A salute to your thoughtful and thought-provoking writeup. –  Josh Caswell Mar 5 '12 at 3:22
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@RobertHarvey: One of the first things I learned on this topic is that the Stack Exchange network is about learning as I outlined in my answer. While I remember having seen the "better place" sentence somewhere, it has never meant anything to me. If a moderator were to use that one-liner to me, he would only come over as a zealot that doesn't care to place a single sentence (that refers to some FAQ / blog post) that actually explains me something. I wouldn't get angry to him for that, but we can at least try to step away from that... –  Tom Wijsman Mar 5 '12 at 3:58
    
@TomWijsman: See here: meta.stackexchange.com/a/124313/102937 –  Robert Harvey Mar 5 '12 at 4:35
    
@RobertHarvey: Okay, but that's used within a context. Not as a statement by itself. I've now reflected this into a comment on Mark Trapp's answer, note though that I agree and just want clarification on that specific use of the sentence (if at least there is usage of it by some majority of users), if it isn't used that way I'll delete my comments because they would be noise. And sorry for the double pings, sometimes I need to edit my comments outside the time-out... :( –  Tom Wijsman Mar 5 '12 at 4:59
    
After reading this question, I feel better. So at least we all know that THIS question/post/speech - indeed, makes the world and the MotherEarth, a BETTER PLACE©. –  Adel Mar 5 '12 at 5:00
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@casperOne: perhaps a moderator should never kneejerk downvote questions, even if he changes his mind later? Just a thought? –  jalf Mar 5 '12 at 7:20
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@jalf Perhaps a user should not follow a specific moderator around, nit-picking their every word and action? –  jadarnel27 Mar 5 '12 at 14:34
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@jadarnel27: you think I do that? Really? A quick look at his profile tells me that he has posted 88 answers and 44 questions. I can count three occasions where I've voiced my disagreement with his actions. And they've all happened as part of this discussion, and another which I don't particularly want to dig up. Is that "following someone around"? And, perhaps more to the point, do you think it is ok for a moderator to downvote questions as a kneejerk reaction? Suppose it had been some other moderator, or suppose I'd never seen it or commented on it. Would it be ok then? –  jalf Mar 5 '12 at 14:39
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@jalf While I was referring to statements like this one, I definitely overstated the "following around" - sorry about that. Personally, I can understand the kneejerk reaction to downvote a question like this one. At first glance it's a rant (downvote). Further reading shows it's pretty insightful, actually (upvote). I don't think being a moderator really has anything to do with it, to be honest. They should vote like any other user. –  jadarnel27 Mar 5 '12 at 14:46
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@jadarnel27: of course kneejerk reactions are understandable. It's a very human thing to do. It's just not the behavior I want to see from a moderator. A moderator should not vote like any other user, they should vote like a good user. Yes, I hold moderators to a higher standard than "ordinary" users. They chose to become moderators, the community invested a lot of trust in them. We expect them to be worthy of that trust, to be, quite simply, better than us. In any case, I can assure you that I'm not following him around. I considered not commenting on it because of our history –  jalf Mar 5 '12 at 14:49
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But I think it's a valid point, and it'd be valid if anyone else commented on it too, or if it had been any other moderator. –  jalf Mar 5 '12 at 14:54
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@jalf That makes sense. There's been so much negativity towards the moderators over the past couple days, I just lost my cool for a second there. My apologies. I'll try not to add any more insanity than is already present here on Meta right now. –  jadarnel27 Mar 5 '12 at 14:55
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Well, if nothing else, this has proven to be the most controversial question I've ever asked on meta, or anywhere. Regardless of how it pans out, I think it's been effective in exposing the clear philosophical divisions that apparently run far deeper than simply "inclusionism" vs. "deletionism". Apparently there are still many unresolved questions around whether rules are prescriptive or descriptive (or something in between), how current community sentiment should be weighed against the founders' expectations/ideas, and what role instinct/intuition plays/should play in the whole process. –  Aarobot Mar 6 '12 at 21:45

7 Answers 7

"Making the internet a better place" isn't supposed to be a bludgeon or a platitude people say to piss others off: it's code. Not Enigma-level code or a trite Dan Brown novel, but a reasonable stand-in for most people in the know that there's a certain... natural law... guiding what Stack Exchange is and how people should act here.

Yes, it's vague: I think that's by design. People are supposed to use common sense and their best judgement when interpreting what it means to do it. Not everyone is going to agree on the details, and that's fine: that's why we have discussions and (try) to come to consensus on guidelines and actions people can take.

Wikipedia has a policy called "Ignore all rules". Simply:

If a rule prevents you from improving or maintaining Wikipedia, ignore it.

"Make the internet a better place" is Stack Exchange's "ignore all rules" policy. If a guideline, precedent, or action goes against what you sincerely believe makes the Internet a better place, you have an obligation to ignore it.

That is, Stack Exchange users are not automata: all the rules, frameworks, enumerations, precedents, discussions, raging, Xkcd comic postings, and so on are there to support—and not circumvent or replace—thinking for oneself and using the site to make the Internet better off than it was before.

Many times people will disagree: that's normal and to be expected. Improving the Internet is hard. But no rule or guideline is going to be able to accurately accomplish the intent and driving force behind the site: it's just not that black and white.

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@TomWijsman The point of a stand-in phrase is so you don't have to spend a whole lot of time explaining something at great length every time you want to reference it. It might be worth having a blog post that describes Stack Exchange's thoughts about it (although I'm sure there's at least a half-dozen already), but bastardizing it with a verbose and clumsy sentence in an attempt to somehow capture more detail and eliminate confusion to me goes against the spirit of the sentiment behind it in the first place: if you get it, you don't need it. –  user149432 Mar 5 '12 at 5:06
    
So what is your suggestion on how to resolve the inevitable meta-debate over what makes the internet better? Isn't that what all the case history in the form of blog posts and meta discussions is for? Is this answer to suggest that it's OK for anyone - a bloc, a moderator, a dev, whatever - to just ignore everything in favour of their own gut feeling? Should we not at least demand some justification, if somebody is truly going to "ignore all rules", of why they've chosen to ignore all rules, of what the mitigating circumstances are? –  Aarobot Mar 5 '12 at 19:19
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I see where you're coming from, but I believe this is a false analogy. The difference here is that Wikipedia's "ignore all rules" policy is entirely subtractive (when applied the number of rules decreases), while the "better place" metric seems to be used additively quite a bit: it is defining another criterion for acceptance of a question. –  rintaun Mar 5 '12 at 19:21
    
@Aarobot You can't resolve it with a set of norms or practices: if that were possible, I would think someone would've done it already. I don't think it's fair to characterize doing something to make the Internet a better place as acting on gut: people are going to disagree and that's fine, but they need to provide justification as to why they disagree. To that end, I compare it to the good life: it's an intractable problem, nobody's solved it yet, and some arguments are worse than others, but it doesn't mean it's a bad ideal to strive towards. –  user149432 Mar 5 '12 at 19:26
    
@rintaun Whether "make the Internet a better place" is additive or subtractive depends on who you talk to: some believe that moderation should do no harm, so if a question is qualitatively neutral, it should stay. Others believe questions have the burden of proof to demonstrate value: if they can't, they should be removed. I suspect most of the conflict arises from that difference, which suggests to me the pragmatic path is somewhere in the middle: sometimes it's additive, sometimes it's not. So merely saying "I'm making the Internet a better place" is not enough: you need to explain. –  user149432 Mar 5 '12 at 19:29
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The need for justification is precisely what I'm driving at. Wikipedia calls this out directly on the clarification page; in particular, it goes out of its way to say, "Ignore all rules" is not in itself a valid answer if someone asks you why you broke a rule." and then afterward, "Ignore all rules" does not mean there is necessarily an exception to every rule. We seem to be lacking this level of clarity with "make the internet better" which 9 times out of 10 does not come with any further commentary. –  Aarobot Mar 5 '12 at 19:38
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...and the point of this question is, if make the internet better doesn't mean anything definitive by itself, then why do we need to mention it at all? I never said that it's not a good principle - which unfortunately is how people seem to be interpreting the question anyway - I'm asking if it's a useful validity test for Q&A threads. Many guidelines and actions may stem from the MIB principle, but of what particular use is it in resolving disputes? –  Aarobot Mar 5 '12 at 19:41
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@Aarobot It is a useful validity test. Knowledge is founded upon warranted true beliefs: you know a question should stay if you have a belief it should stay, that belief is true, and you're justified in believing it. The belief is founded upon whether the question makes the Internet a better place: you still need to justify it. This is in contrast to killing or keeping a question because you believe some rule or FAQ said so. That's not the litmus test used on Stack Exchange. –  user149432 Mar 5 '12 at 19:55
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@Aarobot So take a disagreement between two people: one person says a question should stay because it makes the Internet a better place and provides a cogent reason for believing that; the other says a question should go because a rule says it's not allowed and also provides evidence for believing that (i.e., pointing to the rule). All things—including justifications—being equal, the former is correct and the latter is not: the rule the latter cites should be changed to support the argument the former provides because the belief the question makes the Internet a better place is superior. –  user149432 Mar 5 '12 at 19:55
    
But you're just assuming that there is a valid reason being provided with the makes the internet better commentary. If that's true, then why do we need the latter? The reason itself is sufficient. Yes, I agree that if the comment is accompanied by a clear and reasonable justification, then it is a better argument than blind rule-following, but how often have you seen that happen, as opposed to seeing the phrase used in isolation? –  Aarobot Mar 5 '12 at 20:05
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@Aarobot I'd say 95% of the time, I see some justification provided when someone says a question should stay because it makes the Internet better. Of course, many times, those justifications are terrible ("because it's popular" or "because people would lose votes"). The problem isn't with their belief, though: it's their argument. What I see just as often (I'm guilty of it too) are people responding to terrible arguments like those with "well the FAQ or <insert blog post here> says X, so you're wrong." Reductio ad blog/FAQ is just as bad, but at least the former had the right motivation. –  user149432 Mar 5 '12 at 20:12
    
So merely saying "I'm making the Internet a better place" is not enough: you need to explain. answers my confusion, removed my comments. –  Tom Wijsman Mar 5 '12 at 20:58
    
Fair enough. Maybe my question took the wrong tack. I guess what I should have asked is, what is the standard by which we should hold each other accountable when choosing to ignore rules and guidelines in favour of "making the internet a better place"? But the issue has enough attention already, so maybe I will just consolidate some of this into another answer. –  Aarobot Mar 5 '12 at 22:26
    
I guess your answer here is a correct definition of how the principle should be applied, so on that basis it merits a vote. I'm just of the mind that this normally isn't how it's applied - typically, if there is any justification, it's usually as you say, an argumentum ad populum or something even less logical. –  Aarobot Mar 5 '12 at 22:30
    
@Aarobot Indeed. Case in point: request to migrate deleted question to Programmers because it makes the Internet a better place because it was popular. Terrible justification, but still a justification. –  user149432 Mar 6 '12 at 11:34

Yes, “making the internet a better place” is still a useful and relevant test for individual questions. It's the vision statement of the entire organization. As such, it's designed to be the guiding principle that we fall back on when more detailed guidelines leave us unsure of what action to take.

I'm not completely convinced that it was ever truly useful, but if it was, I think that it has long since outlived its usefulness.

I don't think it's outlived its usefulness at all, and apparently neither do the founders. A Google search of the blog turns up five pages of variations of the phrase being used over the years, most recently one month ago in Joel Spolsky's farewell post to Jeff Atwood.

That the company will continue to flourish in his absence is no doubt a testament to the great work Jeff did creating an institution dedicated to principles of making the Internet better. -Joel

To address your specific problems with the phrase:

Reasonable people will never agree on a clear definition of what makes the internet "better"...

Actually, reasonable people will agree most of the time. Detailed guidelines are laid out in the FAQ, on the blog, and here on Meta Stack Overflow. However, when we disagree on the interpretation of those guidelines, "make the Internet better" still serves as the guiding principle. As Mark Trapp pointed out in his answer, if we think one of those more detailed guidelines is getting in our way of making the Internet better, we have the right to ignore the guideline.

It has troublesome implications with regard to closing/deleting questions. The message it sends is that when we choose to close or delete a question, we are declaring that it makes the internet a worse place - or, at the very least, does not make it any better. This is offensive and unfair to the author and needlessly ramps up the level of butthurt.

I'm not troubled by this. We have clear guidelines on what kinds of questions should be posted on Stack Overflow, and the close reasons are clear as well. "Doesn't make the Internet better" is not one of those close reasons.

On many if not most sites, we are very careful to tell people that closing/deleting a question does not necessarily mean that we think it is entirely without merit - just that it doesn't belong here, and that they are more than welcome to take another kick at the can provided that they follow the guidelines in the FAQ. It's much harder to get this message across when we supposedly have this doctrine that any content which "makes the Internet better" is definitively allowed.

We don't have that doctrine. Any content which "makes the Internet better" is not definitively allowed, but we do make exceptions for those rare old posts that have content too good to simply delete from the Internet. (When we have a better place to put them, I'll be the first one in line to put them there.) New questions coming in to Stack Overflow are still judged by the guidelines in the FAQ. All of the younger Stack Exchange sites are encouraged to develop their own detailed guidelines and start enforcing them early so they don't have as many exceptions to contend with.

It's just obsolete; it's incompatible with much more current and clearly-worded essays and policies such as Good Subjective, Bad Subjective, Real Questions Have Answers, The Future of Community Wiki, Gorilla vs. Shark, The Trouble With Popularity, and more. Is it OK for people to just ignore two years worth of rich history and extensive debate, blogging, and podcasting in favour of some ancient handwavey one-liner? That seems oddly like representing a case in civil court by holding up the Ten Commandments.

This argument really doesn't hold any water at all. Arguing that "making the Internet a better place" is no longer relevant because "it's just obsolete" is a circular argument. Saying that it's incompatible with articles on the blog is just wrong. It's the guiding principle behind those articles. Yes, sometimes it is okay to ignore the detailed guidelines in favor of their foundational principle. If you think this sounds like a commandment, then I suggest you revisit "it's just obsolete."

No, I don't think it's time to lay “making the Internet a better place” to rest. It's not a specific implementation that's failed like Community Wiki questions and the "Subjective and Argumentative" close reason. It's neither an empty platitude, nor mere "mental masturbation." It's the guiding principle of this community. If it stops being that, then Stack Overflow will have lost its focus.

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"Actually, reasonable people will agree most of the time." Your emphasis on reasonable, I think, underscores the very problem with this doctrine; Mark may be right in that it isn't supposed to be a bludgeon with which to beat people who disagree and attempt to shut down any further debate, but that is exactly how I see it being used most of the time. You say it makes the internet better, I say it doesn't. To you that means I'm not reasonable. To me that means you're avoiding the issue. Neither you nor I can state with authority what is "too good" - that's why specific guidelines exist. –  Aarobot Mar 5 '12 at 19:14
    
I take issue with your quoting of Joel, as well. As I pointed out right from the get-go, it's useful as an aggregate, squinty-eyed, back-of-the-envelope estimation of how well the network is doing as a whole, but I've seen neither Jeff nor Joel try to apply this logic to an individual question in recent memory. –  Aarobot Mar 5 '12 at 19:17
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@Aarobot If you see it being used improperly most of the time, why not cite some examples? Specific guidelines exist for the majority of cases where they actually apply. If you think they apply 100% of the time then moderators can be replaced with a very short script. The guiding principle exists for a reason. Refusing to see that does seem unreasonable to me. –  Bill the Lizard Mar 5 '12 at 19:21
    
@Aarobot Jeff and Joel aren't moderating Stack Overflow on a daily basis. Why would they apply it to a specific question? –  Bill the Lizard Mar 5 '12 at 19:22
    
Huh? What's your point? You were the one who brought up Jeff and Joel, why are you now replying with disclaimers about them? And moderators can't be replaced with a script because the guidelines require a lot of interpretation in context. Our court system follows the law 100% of the time - that doesn't mean we don't need lawyers or judges to make it work. And I would make the analogy that the constitution is an excellent set of guiding principles, but that doesn't mean we make special exceptions, it means we change or remove the law if it's harmful or no longer relevant. –  Aarobot Mar 5 '12 at 19:26
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@Aarobot Your analogy is invalid. The Constitution isn't a set of guiding principles it's a set of laws. Like the FAQ, which does change from time to time. The guiding principles behind it don't change, they inform change. –  Bill the Lizard Mar 5 '12 at 19:31
    
Really, you consider a constitution to be a set of laws, not principles? How do you break one? Whatever your definition is, it is entirely in opposition to the dictionary definition. –  Aarobot Mar 5 '12 at 19:44
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@Aarobot You and I both said the constitution. –  Bill the Lizard Mar 5 '12 at 19:54
    
@Aarobot Joel applies "make the Internet better" to a specific question in today's podcast. –  Bill the Lizard Mar 6 '12 at 22:29
    
Joel also seems to equate that phrase to people simply liking a question; it's too bad Jeff's not in the podcasts anymore because I'm sure he would have had a few words about that. –  Aarobot Mar 6 '12 at 23:16
    
@Aarobot Considering it was a question that Jeff himself deleted, I'm sure you're right. :) –  Bill the Lizard Mar 6 '12 at 23:18

Mark Trapp compares make the internet better to Wikipedia's Ignore All Rules. I think that this is an excellent analogy. It is completely reasonable to refer to this phrase as a foundational principle of Stack Overflow and Stack Exchange.

I'd like to extend this analogy further. Ignoring all rules is not the be-all and end-all of Wikipedia; there's a method to the madness, and by the same token, making the internet better is not the sole guiding principle of Stack Exchange.

Wikipedia has a mission statement (of sorts):

Wikipedia is first and foremost an effort to create and distribute a free encyclopedia of the highest possible quality to every single person on the planet in their own language.

It is understood on Wikipedia that ignoring all rules is still done within the context of building a free encyclopedia. It's a simple, succinct elevator pitch, but an important one.

Stack Overflow/Stack Exchange also has a mission statement:

Don’t try to replace forums. Answer people’s questions! That’s our focus. Get those answers to the top of Google search so people can find the information they’re looking for with a minimum of noise.

How will people arrive at the site? 1) Google — ideally directly to the question and answer.

Or, to put in terms as short and sweet as Wikipedia - SE is a free Programming1 Q&A repository. Or, to use Joel's words, the Wikipedia of long-tail programming questions. This is the other founding principle of Stack Exchange; it's the vehicle by which the founders intended to make the internet better. Providing the world's largest collection of Arnold Schwarzenegger clips might better the internet for some, but it is clearly not the kind of "better" that reflects our identity.

So, in the same spirit as Wikipedia, I'd like to have something slightly meatier that expands on the basic principle of making the internet better. The following is what I think it means, it is not intended to be a new set of rules, just my interpretation, and I hope that the community will be inspired or at least duly motivated to turn it into its own living document which reflects community ideals.2


What "making the internet better" means:

  • Making information that is difficult to find, easier to find;
  • Giving the most correct/accurate information top billing;
  • Keeping time-dependent information up-to-date;
  • Making complicated information more accessible/easier to understand;
  • Reducing conversational noise and other usability distractions.

What "making the internet better" does not mean:

  • "Making the internet better" does not mean that all on-topic content must be preserved, or that all off-topic content must be deleted. Content should be judged on its individual merits.

  • "Making the internet better" is not a popularity contest. What people enjoy and what can benefit them practically are two different things.

  • "Making the internet better" does not mean better for anyone. The potential positive effect for some should be weighed carefully against the potential negative effect for others.

  • "Making the internet better" is not, by itself, a justification of any action. Most rules are created from years of experience with the stated aim of making the internet better; people who make content changes (delete/undelete/edit) in opposition to established guidelines must justify how their actions improve the Q&A site if challenged.

  • "Making the internet better" is not an invitation to use Stack Exchange (except meta/chat) for purposes other than what the site is intended for - namely Q&A.

I think we can see these principles at work in almost every aspect of the site's layout and features - everything from voting, to sorting, to editing, to commenting, all the way to rep-based privileges and community moderation. So if any of these are deemed wrong, or misleading, I'd like to hear a good reason for why.


1. Replace with individual site topic.
2. Several of these are adapted or stolen from Wikipedia.

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My 0.02

It need not be an empty platitude - it could be - but that is up to the community.

But it is not something that has any practical value in resolving debates or disputes, and seems only to escalate the emotions involved in that context.

It is not possible to draw any kind of objective metric from it, raising it as a metric or point of order in a debate just seems to offend someone or everyone.

"Your mental output does not make the internet a better place" is about as subjective and argumentative as you can get.

As a raison d'être for SO/SE - awesome - please keep it - just don't use it as a debating weapon.

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The funny thing about objective metrics is that they're still subjectively interpreted and applied, due to different understandings of language and different judgment. "Makes the internet better" is really a quick summary of all the objective criteria laid out over the years. –  Matthew Read Mar 5 '12 at 15:58
    
Agreed - metrics that can't be expressed by equations, always come down to interpretation. The more I move from being a programmer to managing programmers and clients, the more I get beaten around the head with divergent interpretations from either side. Programmers, my younger self (slightly less so current) included, can be very intractable in their attachment to viewpoints - usually based on sound logic. But life generally requires flexibility - not helpful to tell someone they are being stupid and illogical - even if they are. Ergo - make metrics as unambiguous as possible. –  seanb Mar 5 '12 at 19:40

Is the phrasing "making the internet a better place" subjective?

In other words: What is the Stack Exchange network really after?

You said:

On most sites, we judiciously tell members to avoid phrases like these; how, then, can we expect to be taken seriously as community leaders if our raison d'être is predicated on such a similarly vague platitude?

I'm one of the users that thinks that best and bestest and better are good indications of bad subjective.

But actually, we know what our Stack Exchange is after from their blog posts.

From the blog post that handles one of the problematic question types, "shopping recommendations":

If I had to summarize our network in a single word, that word is “learning”. People come to our sites to learn about topics they are passionate about. As the old Chinese proverb goes, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” Every question and answer ultimately should be about teaching and learning — yes, even the shopping ones.

The first sentence is important here, it has also been mentionend in good subjective, bad subjective:

Most forums and chat rooms have a scale problem. As in, they don’t. The more people that join the discussion, the more noise each of those connections bring. So the forums get progressively noisier and noisier, and suddenly one day … you stop learning.

… eventually the experts (i.e. people who are teaching you stuff) get drowned out and you are left with an experience that looks more like the magazine rack at a grocery store than a book shelf at Harvard. — Robert Scoble

Because we believe so deeply in learning, we are willing to go to great lengths to suppress the discussion, debate, and opinions that — while plenty entertaining — cause most forums to inevitably break down.

And there even have been other occasions where learning was mentioned in one or another way.

Seeing it mentioned at least twice, and in a post of one to two years ago. I believe learning still makes up for a relevant and useful test, because we simply don't want things that don't help us in understanding why a certain thing is like it is.

Really, on a weekly basis I come across a lot of answers on Super User that only outline a certain solution to a problem in the form of a command; in a lot of these occasions these answers do not outline how to get to such solution. If you simply add a reference to the man page and explain how the parameter or syntactic construct works, it goes a much longer way...

Compare it's a bug, here is a non-sense work-around to why it is wrong, how to come to a fix yourself.

TL;DR Bottom line: Yes, that phrase is subjective. But we all know we're after learning things...

Is the phrasing "making the internet a better place" offensive?

In other words: What should I tell them instead when I close / delete their posts?

You said:

It has troublesome implications with regard to closing/deleting questions. The message it sends is that when we choose to close or delete a question, we are declaring that it makes the internet a worse place - or, at the very least, does not make it any better. This is offensive and unfair to the author and needlessly ramps up the level of butthurt.

I'm assuming that you have seen people use it that way, so here's what I think about that use case:

This is where learning comes into place. If you make a bold statement they won't get it, while a good explanation will make them understand their fault in most occasions. Try to explain why their question is being closed or deleted, which in most occasions is as simply as referencing to the FAQ and can even be as simple as some clicks with AutoReviewComments.

TL;DR Bottom line: Yes, don't leave that bold statement. Instead, explain why (FAQ) using magic...

Is the phrasing "making the internet a better place" obsolete?

In other words: What should I refer them to instead when they don't understand?

You said:

It's just obsolete; it's incompatible with much more current and clearly-worded essays and policies such as [...] . Is it OK for people to just ignore two years worth of rich history and extensive debate, blogging, and podcasting in favour of some ancient handwavey one-liner? That seems oddly like representing a case in civil court by holding up the Ten Commandments.

Now we're finally getting somewhere, it feels like this sentence stuck around from the past. Kind of like a motto line, but it surely is too short to be a mission statement. We should at least change it to something like making the internet an educated community through learning or along that lines.

Or well, remove it altogether as we indeed have quite some blog posts to refer to. Without using those "shopping recommendations" and "good subjective, bad subjective", remember that we also have two blog posts on actual Q&A: Optimizing for pearls, not sand and Don't be afraid to use the science.

And well, in closing / deleting occasions there is the FAQ as I have already mentioned.

TL;DR Bottom line: Yes, it doesn't involve learning and is subjective/offensive. Use above blog posts; regarding closing and/or deleting questions you can use the FAQ instead...

So, yes, this sentence makes no sense towards the wide public.

You: We think your stuff doesn't make the internet a better place. Him/Her: What's wrong with my stuff?

You have my vote to get rid of this sentence; we know the background, but the majority does not...

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Downvoters, please explain. You are free to disagree, but feel free to at least leave a comment what you dislike about my answer so that I can improve that part. I will not respond unless your comment includes a question mark (?); I'm only here to explain/improve, not to dispute your thoughts. –  Tom Wijsman Mar 5 '12 at 4:00
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We never explain it to users this way. "Making the Internet a better place" is a philosophy, not a close reason. The close reasons and the guidelines set forth in the FAQ are the implementation of that philosophy. –  Robert Harvey Mar 5 '12 at 4:30
    
@Robert: The OP actually mentions that himself, yet we can't assume that nobody has ever used it. I have responded on his paragraph regarding that. Note how I agree that it shouldn't be used as a close reason... –  Tom Wijsman Mar 5 '12 at 4:49

Well, this is a community of trust-based activity.. yes? I mean, however you look at it, in the end, you and I are working on some level of trust. And there is more power entrusted to high-ranking scorers and admins. Undoubtedly, there will be disagreement.

But I do think there's a collective intuition at play, that has worked well at picking the material that "makes the internet a better place."

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4  
I'm not sure what disagreement and collective intuition you're addressing. But how does one know what he is doing wrong if you only tell him that his post should "make the internet a better place"? –  Tom Wijsman Mar 5 '12 at 5:19
    
@TomWijsman - That's a very good point, yeah that phrase is vague and a bit patronizing I think. –  Adel Mar 11 '12 at 6:17

Is it subjective? Yes.

Is that a problem? No, if used correctly.

Is it obsolete? Definitely not.

Just don't ever quote it as an objective argument (e.g. as a close reason) and you should be fine. Use it as a motivation, incentive, ...

Would that "make the internet a better place"? I believe so. :)

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If a phrase is subjective how can it be used correctly and who defines how it is used correctly (the old users, the new users, the average sample) :) Just something to think about ;) –  phwd Mar 5 '12 at 21:25
    
@phwd: "Just don't ever quote it as an objective argument" –  Steven Jeuris Mar 5 '12 at 21:26
    
This answer makes no effort to back up any of its assertions. Simply declaring something does not make it so. –  Aarobot Mar 5 '12 at 22:21
    
@Aarobot: I was just trying to be concise. :) Although I fully agree (and up voted) some of the other answers I feel this is what it boils down to. Your question was largely based around the following statement "Should anybody still be quoting "makes the internet a better place" as an actual, practical criteria for whether or not a question should remain open or closed?". I'm wondering whether you could give examples of when this actually occured, otherwise I don't see the point of extending on this answer. –  Steven Jeuris Mar 5 '12 at 22:27

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