Disclaimer: This post is quite lenghty. To prevent out of context interpretations I kindly request either reading it in its entirety or not reading it at all. Thank you.
Why am I writing this?
I've been active on the Stack Exchange (SE) network for over a year on a wide variety of different sites. The best way to sum up my experience of SE is: "I love it! It's the best there is." I believe strongly in the network and it's goal of "making the internet a better place", borrowing a catchphrase of Jeff Atwood. Judging from my first SE account I have visited the network 340 days at this time, making me believe I sufficiently grasp what it is about, and know about its weaknesses and strengths. Apparently others seem to agree as I've recently been appointed Pro-Tem moderator. Surely I've still got much to learn, especially with those newly added responsibilities.
I am giving you this background since I find when similar discussions arise all too often people reach to the easy conclusion that a user must not grasp what a site (or meta) is about. I implore you not to place me in that category. If a user befitting my profile isn't able to understand and participate in meta, we have worse problems than the points I'll be making in this post.
This post is intended to point out what I find to be a big problem of the network, which is actively hurting the site. I want to address this problem not because I am being anarchistic, but because I strongly value the network as mentioned earlier.
What is a discussion?
Prior to explaining why I feel meta is extremely ill-fit to host discussions, let me first define what a discussion is. Taken from dictionary.com.
an act or instance of discussing; consideration or examination by argument, comment, etc., especially to explore solutions; informal debate.
The meta tag labels it as:
A tag for questions that may not necessarily have a clear-cut right or wrong answer and are often subjective. If it's not a bug or feature-request, it is probably a discussion.
What's wrong with discussion on meta?
The discussion tag is one of the tags between which you have to choose. The other three possible tags all suit the Q&A format very nicely, with the possible exception of feature-request which can often also lead to extensive discussions.
But there are two aspects that are... Just plain hard to understand for those unfamiliar with the site because of how it was shoehorned into the SE format: discussion and voting.
Discussion, with two-level threading, is handled by answers and comments. It's not perfect - if you end up going back and forth with someone for more than a few rounds, it falls apart badly. Fortunately, we have chat to serve the need for lengthy conversations.
The problem with voting is more subtle though. See, the engine already supported voting. It just didn't mean quite the same thing:
- Discussion is anarchy. Maybe it's a feature-request where the details haven't quite been hashed out yet. Maybe it's a rant, or a straw-poll, or a short article or announcement. Voting is done according to whatever arbitrary criteria the voter feels appropriate.
There is no denying discussion on meta is somewhat broken. If you acknowledge the intentions behind the "don't ask" faq on main sites, it's easy to see how the same problems apply to discussions on meta.
Why isn't chat an alternative?
Often it is mentioned chat is an alternative to construct discussions, as in Shog9's summary above. While it's perfectly possible to have detailed discussions in chat between open-minded people, it entails all the problems which the Q&A format of SE is actually trying to solve. It doesn't leave behind a valuable (easily accessible) resource. Starring highlights of a discussion and providing a log of them somewhat attempts to alleviate this problem, but contrasted to the artifacts the Q&A format produces this is a rather weak solution. Neither can you easily pick up on an old discussion, have an overview of what has been discussed, and what some of the conclusions were.
What do we have now?
Right now we have a complex/unclear system which everybody tries to use to their best knowledge. It's an environment which many interpret as hostile, where many actions are interpreted ambiguously. These actions however have actual consequences, regardless of how you interpret them. Discussions with the best of intentions get down voted, sometimes burying them never to be seen again.
As far as I'm concerned we don't have discussions by the definition I gave. The voting system linked to discussions encourages many people to already opt-out at the first step of the diagram: "Can you envision anything that will change your mind?" To demonstrate this attitude it suffices to link to a comment by Tim Post on the latest meta discussion I started.
Voting on Meta has worked quite well, I don't see how this could improve it. I see what you're getting at, and the hour+ it would take me to go through an entire list without simply saying 'No, oh no, please no!" would basically prevent me from participating at all.
Why isn't the possibility of influencing moderators and staff enough?
Robert Harvey's answer gave very valuable feedback on this post, which I find important to incorporate at this point:
Regardless of the polarization you sometimes see here on Meta, the discussion that takes place here does have an influence over the moderators and staff. We do listen. Meta is the primary vehicle by which the mods assess the temperature of the community, and it is the primary mechanism by which they get detailed feedback about their decisions.
Unfortunately, that is not enough, of which his next paragraph is a nice example:
The real tragedy are those people who stop participating in the discussion process because they feel that SE is ruled by elitists, and then raise a stink here a year later when things change in a way that they don't like.
I don't know whether it was intended as such, but I interpret that as an argument for my cause. The entire premise is we should allow discussions to take place in a more constructive format, making Meta a more hospitable environment, preventing the discourse from becoming inflammatory and uncivil. An attitude as "That's an inherent problem with any type of discussion or meeting, though, probably not something that we can solve over at SE." doesn't get us anywhere towards this goal. Give SE some credit, take a look back and see what you've been able to establish!
Whether or not influence is possible is besides the point. (although highly appreciated, thank you!) Wouldn't it be nice to have a bigger community which feels they can contribute, so that more good (constructive) stuff can reach the moderators and staff?
What should we do?
The discussion tag has been used 12,143 times at the time of writing. It's an important part of the ecosystem of meta.
- First of all I want to raise awareness (as by this post), that there is a problem. We are driving people away who only have the best intentions for the network.
- A discussion isn't a feature-request, and there should be a clear difference. All too often a discussion is down voted as if it were a feature request.
- Ideally you can't vote on discussions. You can't agree or disagree on a discussion in any way, you agree or disagree with a certain part of a discussion, preferably motivating why.
- Stay open minded. A discussion is meant to raise questions. Don't let the first question you raise shade your judgement in the rest of the discussion.