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.

In order to have a rational discussion, I find the following seemingly popular infographic particularly informing.

constructive discussion inforgraphic

What's wrong with discussion on meta?

The 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 which can often also lead to extensive discussions.

required meta tags

is a bit of an oddball, and the SE network was never designed with discussion in mind, as Shog9 kindly summarized.


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.

Or by example as per Conrad Frix's comment, sometimes controversial ideas do get implemented.

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 tag has been used 12,143 times at the time of writing. It's an important part of the ecosystem of meta.

  1. 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.
  2. A isn't a , and there should be a clear difference. All too often a discussion is down voted as if it were a feature request.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
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    Damn, I just read the small text, now I need to read the whole thing! Commented Mar 5, 2012 at 16:23
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    I did read the whole thing. I agree with much of the diagnosis, but I didn't see much in the way of concrete suggestions that SE could implement to help fix it. Your only main suggestions were to tweak the meta tagging, and eliminate voting. Is there something bigger SE should do? Commented Mar 5, 2012 at 16:37
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    @AdamRackis That was my original intent: meta.stackexchange.com/q/124516/157047 Commented Mar 5, 2012 at 16:37
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    @Steven - ah, sorry. I should have read that post too. I don't think it's a bad idea, but might be tricky to implement. Plus, as you well know, people don't like change :) Commented Mar 5, 2012 at 16:40
  • @Mr.Disappointment - of course. My point was that I was expecting an idea from the post as to how to fix it. But as Steven pointed out, that was in a previous post I failed to see. Commented Mar 5, 2012 at 16:41
  • 1
    possible duplicate of Is the Q&A format really suited for Meta?, Is the Q&A format of metas suitable for discussion?, and some others I can't find, perhaps they were deleted during the purge after the last Great Debate (over comment @replies)... Commented Mar 5, 2012 at 17:14
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    You don't feel that you can disagree with a discussion on the basis that its very premise is invalid? For instance, a discussion about why the sky is green, where the premise that the sky actually is green is untrue. I do get where you're coming from, but I think the larger issue is that people rarely post discussions; they post highly polarized opinions...which unfortunately tend to descend into chaos.
    – Tim Stone
    Commented Mar 5, 2012 at 17:19
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    Also, I think most people (for whatever reason, right or wrong) tend to assume that the discussion is the means to some end, which is why some discussions, especially ones with implementation examples such as yours, tend to be viewed as feature-request-ish in nature.
    – Tim Stone
    Commented Mar 5, 2012 at 17:20
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    Why do you think "it's futile and a waste of time for me and you to continue discussing controversial ideas" Sometimes they do get implmented Commented Mar 5, 2012 at 17:50
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    @TimStone: "an act or instance of discussing; consideration or examination by argument, comment, etc., especially to explore solutions; informal debate." Commented Mar 5, 2012 at 18:07
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    I don't really get the feeling that my contributions are unvalued. Are you still getting this feeling? Commented Mar 6, 2012 at 3:48
  • 1
    Can't resist: being concise might be more conducive to discussion :)
    – Benjol
    Commented Mar 6, 2012 at 6:56
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    @CodyGray Obviously I wouldn't have written this post if didn't feel I could contribute in some way. That was poor wording on my part as pointed out by Robert Harvey, and I feel my edit improved on that. But let's put this in perspective and see the amount of effort I put into this discussion, and how the community received it. I find the disproportion striking. A discussion should be balanced with equal input from both sides, not one person having to fight off an entire army. Commented Mar 6, 2012 at 9:13
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    Yes, I definitely think you would have. I think you would have made more of an impact. For whatever reason, people have it in their minds that it's better to post a new question, rather than answering a duplicate. I don't know where that comes from or why they're so insistent. You're not the first to act like I'm denying some special right in voting to close a question. It's like, well yeah, I could do that, but you know this is better. No, I don't. I think it's worse. It fractures debate and makes things hard to follow. Yes, knowledge of the forum is required. That's not unique to Meta. Commented Mar 6, 2012 at 19:42
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    Is there a TL;DR? After the inital, "Either spend 10 minutes reading this post, or don't read it at all", I decided for the latter. Essentially: What is the point you're trying to make? Commented Mar 13, 2012 at 11:34

6 Answers 6


How can Meta be made more conducive to discussions?

This is simple: stop pretending Stack Exchange's Q&A system is a good format for discussion.

The founding idea behind SE was something really quite simple: recognition that web forums are not a good medium for Q&A. They don't solve the problems Q&A needs, and they interfere a great deal in the Q&A process. By understand the problem they wanted to solve (Q&A), they could create a system that solved exactly that specific problem.

And they were obviously very successful at this.

The problem is that with success comes idolatry and zealotry. The belief that SE's methodology is the best way for people to interact outside of e-mail. Many people look at SE as the pinnacle of human communication in some way, that this is the perfect system to interact with people online.

Discussion is a fundamentally different problem than Q&A. The needs of Q&A define how SE works. It's designed to make real, actual discussion as difficult as humanly possible, because discussion usually serves as a distraction from Q&A. But if the purpose actually is discussion... well, there's not much that can be done.

In order to solve this problem, we have to agree to design a system completely outside the boundaries of the SE model. Such a system would be designed to have intelligent discussions, where people can put forth their ideas and defenses/attacks of those idea.

To do that, we have to stop using the SE model.


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.

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.

Meta is a gauntlet, a crucible for ideas. If your idea can withstand the pounding, it might be a good one. Like many other sites on the network, Meta attracts a few really good ideas, and many bad ones. That's why there are more questions tagged [status-declined] than [status-completed]. But the [status-completed] decisions are well worth the effort of getting through all the [status-declined].

See Also

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    I think there are people who stop participating because the discourse becomes inflammatory and uncivil. That's the real tragedy. Ideally, people need to learn to make rational arguments in favor of or against specific proposals without resorting to personal insults. That's an inherent problem with any type of discussion or meeting, though, probably not something that we can solve over at SE. Commented Mar 5, 2012 at 17:19
  • Thank you for pointing out it has an influence, I might have been too negative in my post on that aspect. However, your reply does not address that the way the current system is formed it does lead to people not wanting to participate in discussions anymore, regardless of whether they have an effect or not. Commented Mar 5, 2012 at 17:48
  • I updated my question in order to incorporate this very valuable feedback, along with a more extensive argumentation on my end. You can find it under the section "Why isn't the possibility of influencing moderators and staff enough?". Commented Mar 5, 2012 at 22:57
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    @CodyGray, the most inflammatory and uncivil discourse I've seen here recently comes from people who definitely don't consider themselves 'meta'...
    – Benjol
    Commented Mar 6, 2012 at 7:04
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    @Benjol Do you have your rose-colored glasses on? :) Commented Mar 6, 2012 at 9:28
  • @CodyGray anything inflammatory and uncivil should be flagged and edited/removed, just like anywhere else on the network. If the OP is somehow implicitly saying "there is too much rudeness" then that's what the post should say, with examples. Commented Mar 10, 2012 at 12:00

It's not at all clear what the problem is you are trying to "fix" here.

Can you explain what the problem is in a few sentences?

As the system (community) works now, I am no longer inclined to participate in any "discussions". I'll stick to the part of SE that does work, Q&A, and will sheepishly uphold the established values. Not because I'm hurt, but because I feel it's futile and a waste of time for me and you to continue discussing controversial ideas in its current form.

Best I can tell, this is the underlying request, which boils down to "some of my 'controversial' suggestions have not been well received, therefore I don't want to make any more suggestions."

If you are being turned away by rudeness or incivility that is a serious problem and that is what you should have said. It is specifically disallowed by the FAQ and if there are identifiable patterns of rudeness or incivility we will ban users for it without the slightest hesitation. Please, flag rudeness or incivility anywhere you see it so that we can take action.

But if you are being turned away by the community collectively not supporting your suggestions... I'm sorry, how is this a problem? Either make different suggestions, improve the ones you already made, or decide that conceptually we've created a "car" and you've made too many "hey, this car should be more like a truck!" suggestions. If you want to drive a truck, that's not what we do here.

  • 1
    Not that they haven't been well received, but that it's near impossible to discuss them. Yes, because I am being turned away by rudeness and incivility, which also makes me act upon it. The discussion isn't possible anymore at that point. It's not rudeness or incivility towards a person, but towards an idea. I'm not insulted personally, and I do not feel flags qualify for that. Perhaps the original title of the post was more telling, but I was required to change it: "Why I no longer feel like having discussions on meta" Commented Mar 11, 2012 at 21:40
  • I'm fine by not being able to drive a truck, I'm just stating that not even being able to discuss a truck, will prevent you from ever getting to know a truck. Simultaneously I feel not having a truck might have disadvantages: "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." Commented Mar 11, 2012 at 21:42
  • P.s. this post doesn't seem to be 'turned down' by the community, so there might be something to it? P.s.s. conciseness on similar topics as this usually get down voted on meta. Commented Mar 11, 2012 at 21:44
  • And this question kind of shows the problem of not even being able to discuss it. It's an honest support question. The valid answer is buried somewhere in a comment on a down voted post. No way I can accept that to point out to others chat is probably the best way, and it is, I've been active on Tavern on the Meta and had much better results. Commented Mar 11, 2012 at 21:52
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    @steve we definitely know how trucks work. After nearly four years of this, it is rare to see someone propose a truly original idea that we haven't seen already in some form and/or already discussed. Ideas will be discussed on their own merits, but if you're regularly walking on to the lot of a car dealer and constantly explaining how they should be making a truck, you might respectfully consider that you are perhaps in the wrong place. That said, civility to people is required 100% of the time here but civility to ideas, well, the best I can do is give you my honesty. Sorry. Commented Mar 11, 2012 at 21:56
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    No problem. But just to make clear, you do now I am not talking about Q&A, but only the Meta part, e.g. discussions, right? I know you perfected Q&A, I feel the same way. Discussions aren't Q&A. That's the concise explanation you were looking for. On a more positive note, thank you for all the effort you put into this, and for still taking the time to reply here. It's much appreciated! Commented Mar 11, 2012 at 22:01

I disagree with you that Meta is a platform ill used for discussion.

Comments are a great mechanism for this, as evidenced by the "please move to chat" messages. If people wouldn't find comments useful for cluttering StackExchange sites with conversation exchanges, which you might call "discussions", then there would be no need to encourage people to the chat rooms.

As far as votes go, they are simply a generic sign of general agreement or disagreement. In the context of questions on StackOverflow, votes show appreciation for technical expertise, or disagreement with poor grammar or formulation. (You seem to recognize this here and here.) A downvote can mean a million things. Ever seen the comment "Why the downvote?" Those guys are a result of ambiguity of votes. "Gee, someone downvoted me, but I'm not sure why. I'm open to improving my post (discussion) but what did I do wrong?" Although reputation is important, it's a byproduct of voting. Nothing more.

Bearing that in mind, when I see such a long winded post complaining about the system, it makes me doubt the seriousness of the OP. A disclaimer at the beginning of a post offers it a new level of illegitimacy.

Looking through your profile, I see that you have raised some good ideas through critical thinking. It also seems that many of those ideas have been downvoted into oblivion. Perhaps you're just frustrated with StackExchange's resistance to change?

Also, can I have your "backing up facts" badge, since I quoted you several times?

However, there is some merit to what you are saying. As you correctly state, StackExchange is designed to resist discussion. Tagging content as "discussion" invites exactly that. One size fits all doesn't work when the two positions under consideration are polar opposites and inherently exclusive.

However, realize that most forums are terrible conversation platforms as it is. It's rare, in my opinion, to see well designed "conversation software". There's not much to be improved, and so StackExchange is likely going to stick with what the community has shown to work for itself. Q&A with a little bit of votes.

Stick around meta, it would be a shame to see you go. Perhaps you can have a positive influence in the future. I say, cut the trolling and start polling!

  • I'm not sure I've ever seen a comment thread in meta get move to chat... #justsayin
    – cdeszaq
    Commented Mar 6, 2012 at 0:02
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    "Comments are a great mechanism for this, as evidenced by the "please move to chat" messages." Time once was we said that forums were a great mechanism for Q&A. We were wrong. Chat and comments are both very limited. It's like trying to discuss something while being punched in the gut; you can only speak 600 letters at a time. You have to keep everything brief, and there's no way to edit it for clarity afterwards. It's too immediate to have a real discussion. Commented Mar 6, 2012 at 1:27

The premise of your question is the graphic, and the graphic strikes me as a bit of a self-parody. It pretends that there are universal, objective, criteria for facts and behaviors. And in very limited, artificial, arenas of discourse, that might be true.

However, meta is all about human behavior, and 'reasonable' is not an objective predicate. Neither is 'faulty.'

The whole premise of the graphic is that some superior intellect (the 'me' of the graphic), in a position of power, is laying out the rules of audience. If he/she deigns to talk to a mere worm, the worm has to follow the rules, and the superior mortal judges compliance.

If anyone tried to pull that shit on me I'd just walk away. In a large, amorphous, group of peers, there isn't even anyone who can claim the place of that omniscient, asinine, narrator.

I'm sure you meant well, but is that voice really a point of view you want to be associated with?


There is no denying discussion on meta is somewhat broken.

To the extent that, when a discussion goes off the rails (takes any rightward branch in your flowchart) Meta's discussion format tends to fall apart, yes.

Of course, there isn't a bit of software yet written that solves that problem. Pure discussion-focused systems (various forums and newsgroups) attempt to mitigate these failures in various ways, but since the failures occur on the part of one or more participants in the discussion, they cannot be solved completely by technical measures (most of which amount to some form of auto-silencing those who appear to participate in bad faith).

Meta discussion doesn't really even try. There's very little value to us in keeping a detailed historical record of every discussion that falls apart because of an unwillingness on the part of participants to stick to that left-hand flow. So when a discussion falls apart, it tends to get down-voted, closed, and eventually deleted. We're not even looking to maintain a chronological record of discussions that do work; maintaining just the arguments and counter-arguments is enough.

Because we're all human, and therefore terrible at conducting calm, rationale discussion, this often fails - and here, Chat becomes the mitigating factor. But chat is not intended to be a historical record. Once you've worked out whatever factors led to problems in chat, you must take the results back to Meta.

Does this confuse people? Drive them away? Heck yeah! So does the pure Q&A format of Stack Overflow - by nature, most people are as unwilling or unable to formulate a good question as they are to kick off and participate in productive discussion, and by requiring them to do so we absolutely alienate quite a few potential participants.

But for those that are willing to learn and participate in our weird little system, the payoff is huge: instead of the traditional "dozens of messages each containing a small piece of the answer", there's a clear path from specific question to specific answer, a useful artifact on The Internet for the education of future readers.

And the same is true for meta discussions. There's no pretense here that every potential participant's input is valuable. But if you can present a persuasive argument, defend it against reasoned criticism, and move on when you're unable to persuade others, then you'll be welcome here.

  • "... present a persuasive argument, defend it against reasoned criticism, and move on ..." How do you defend it against criticism if the system as you mention "doesn't even try". That's what goes wrong in my opinion, and that's what this post was about. It is probably more likely for a big player to step up and provide a platform for it, instead of continuing believing that you can 'fight' a system from the inside out. Somebody will eventually make this, and here I was just hoping it would be SE. Commented Mar 11, 2012 at 22:43
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    @Steven but why should SE do this? Pro/con lists and discussions are hardly part of its core business... plus I think your accusation that "the system doesn't even try" is starting to get ridiculous. A number of users (myself included) has seriously thought about your ideas over the past couple of days, agreed to some of them, and reasonedly criticized others. They haven't been received well by the community in terms of total number of votes, but you can't complain about lack of attention.
    – Pekka
    Commented Mar 11, 2012 at 22:52
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    As much as I appreciated your input Pekka, from my point of view (e.g. with the topics I raise) you're the minority. As to why should SE do this? Because SE has gotten bigger than Q&A. Discussion (Meta, our very being here) has become a part of SE. Commented Mar 11, 2012 at 22:56
  • @Steven: the system doesn't try very hard to solve social issues with technical measures. We depend on folks participating here because they care about the system this site exists to serve - the main Q&A sites. If they can't or won't participate in good faith, then we have no particular need to cater to them at all. If you want an answer on SO, you'll learn to ask an effective question; if you want to be taken seriously here on MSO, you'll learn to write a good argument.
    – Shog9
    Commented Mar 11, 2012 at 23:00
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    A good argument, or a concise argument? Obviously I failed at both. Could you please disable my Pro-Tem Moderator access once a suitable replacement candidate has been found? It's way too tempting to end up on Meta while having to discuss moderation constantly. Obviously Meta is not for me. Thank you. Commented Mar 11, 2012 at 23:04
  • @Steven a good argument on Meta should mostly be a concise one. It is the age of [tl;dr] after all :)
    – Pekka
    Commented Mar 11, 2012 at 23:09
  • Being concise does tend to be useful, @Steven, but that's almost orthogonal. I would say being focused is more important here, whether that means one paragraph, or five pages. Your recent posts suffer from trying to address too many issues simultaneously - when your first goal must be to convince readers that the problem actually exists, this is a recipe for failure: you can't spend enough time on any one issue to do it justice.
    – Shog9
    Commented Mar 11, 2012 at 23:10
  • @Pekka I'm afraid so. Commented Mar 11, 2012 at 23:10
  • @Shog9 This post is meant to convince readers that the problem exists. They reply, "it doesn't because it works". That's a concise argument alright, except that it isn't. After dozens of discussions, I realize I should ask how I could convince them. Read, step 1 of a discussion, being open to being convinced. My conclusion is they obviously don't want to be convinced, and definitely not through Meta. So I took the conversation to chat. I might linger around there, but I really don't see how I can be more focused. Commented Mar 11, 2012 at 23:16
  • @Steven: there again, you struggle to focus on any one thing. Participation? That's a huge topic all on its own - I can give you hard numbers on participation here relative to SO, but first we need to establish what sort of participation we should be measuring on either site. Efficiency? Should that even be a goal? If so, efficiency for what... or for whom? Satisfaction may or may not depend on either of the first two factors, and will almost certainly vary based on what each person's goal is. These are huge, thorny topics, and you're running at them at full speed, eyes closed.
    – Shog9
    Commented Mar 11, 2012 at 23:22
  • @Shog9, the point was to ask for any metric. It was deliberately (but as you stated possibly not smart) broad. "I believe that the best way to see which metrics could be used to resolve the argument "Meta works" is by posting a suggested metric per answer. Up vote those metrics which you feel would be a good representation, down vote those you find to be too subjective or irrelevant." Commented Mar 11, 2012 at 23:27
  • It was my intent to address as you put it: "first we need to establish what sort of participation we should be measuring on either site.", etc ... Commented Mar 11, 2012 at 23:28
  • For now I'm just leaving Meta, as I tried my best, and obviously I'm not qualified to be addressing these issues (if they even need to be addressed). I get annoyed by them too much to stay around here. It's what some interpret as a dictatorship, but I just interpret it as miscommunication. Once there is a possibility of discussing this here, I'll gladly hear from you. I'm tracking this post as I feel it best expresses my concerns. If this doesn't attract up votes over time I have no reason to come back. Commented Mar 11, 2012 at 23:32

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