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A guest at my house over the weekend stood puzzled next to my driveway. "What is that for?" she asked, pointing to a framework of 2x4s and hardware cloth perched on an old tire amid piles of sand. "Sifter." I said. "For what?" "For sifting gravel." "Why?" "To line walking paths, such as the one you're standing on..."

Spend enough time working with something, and it's easy to forget how strange and unnatural your makeshift tooling can appear to those unfamiliar with it.

Such is the nature of these meta sites. For 5 years, we've been directing folks to them for discussion and feedback, to commune with their community, hash out misunderstandings, propose changes and document the current state of things. And... We haven't always been good about helping them get past the initial shock and confusion of dealing with this system. This has manifested in several unfortunate behaviors:

  • Downvoting of legitimate support questions - those that are not duplicates and reflect an actual bug or honest misunderstanding of how the system operates. Folks who are acting in good faith should be treated as such - we should be doing more to help them thrive, not shutting them down.

  • Closing questions that seek input and discussion from the community - in hindsight, adding "primarily opinion based" as a close reason on meta sites was... a terrible idea. The old "not constructive" close reason made some sense for rants and so on, but for a discussion site closing down questions that solicit opinions is just silly. Here on MSE, we prefer the following off-topic reason instead:

    This question does not appear to seek input and discussion from the community. If you have encountered a problem on one of our sites, please describe it in detail. See also: What is "meta"? How does it work?

  • The perception that Stack Exchange is disrupting the normal operation of the site by talking about future plans - even when those plans involve the community. I talked about this a bit more on Should Stack Exchange Inc promote its pet projects on meta sites?, but seeing this kind of backlash toward folks at the company who were trying to be open and receptive to discussion about what they were doing was kinda disheartening - we need to be doing more of that, not less.

  • A reluctance to ask questions about asking questions - which is about as meta as you can get, and yet we probably get more of these via email than we see on meta, while being the least-qualified to answer them well.

After an increasing number of complaints from both core users and moderators on a number of sites, we're taking a hard look at how we can improve this situation... Starting with a change to the "What is Meta?" help center topic:

Meta is for...

  • ...$SiteName users to communicate with each other about $SiteName (asking questions about how the websites work, or about policies and community decisions)
  • ...$SiteName users to communicate with Stack Exchange the company (posting bugs, suggesting improvements, or proposing new features), and
  • ...Stack Exchange to communicate with the community (soliciting feedback on new ideas or features, or discussing policies that affect the whole network)

Lots of topics are fair game, as long as they are about the Stack Exchange family of Q&A sites in some way. Any issue that concerns the core Stack Exchange engine that runs all Stack Exchange websites is welcome here.

This replaces the previous bullet list of specific topics, and aims to outline broad purposes with examples for clarification rather than constraining the scope to those examples.

So... that's a start. But a documentation change isn't going to change misconceptions that've already built up among newer users. So I'm asking y'all for help:

What do you think meta should be used for, and how can we better communicate this intent to new users?

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    That's not weird at all! Also, I know a guy who can get you some great discount handbags... – Shog9 Oct 2 '14 at 19:57
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    @Shog9 flagged as too chatty – nicael Oct 2 '14 at 20:03
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    Assume good faith, @lostsock - unless you're using the exact same browser version, on the exact same OS, on the exact same network... There's a reasonable chance you don't have a good test environment. Downvoting in these cases is counter-productive: we depend on these reports to flush out edge cases that we can't easily test under either. Leaving a comment asking for specific details on the environment the user is operating in is very helpful though... – Shog9 Oct 2 '14 at 20:16
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    I thought Meta was for Murder, I guess I wrong, so very wrong. – Taryn Oct 2 '14 at 20:19
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    The only real victim of meta is sanity, @bluefeet – Shog9 Oct 2 '14 at 20:21
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    That is an understatement, @Shog9! – Taryn Oct 2 '14 at 20:23
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    My impression was that this meta should not be used by new users at all; the natural place for their questions is the per-site meta of the SE site they joined. Some per-site metas are more helpful than others, but whatever changes to docs are made, I don't see how meta.SE could replace them. – user259867 Oct 2 '14 at 20:31
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    The changes being discussed here apply to all metas, @CareBear - that's why the discussion is here ;-) – Shog9 Oct 2 '14 at 20:43
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    The words "as long as they are about the Stack Exchange family of Q&A sites" made me think that the proposed text was intended for meta.SE, despite the PHP variable you had in bulleted items before it. – user259867 Oct 2 '14 at 21:02
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    @CareBear Strictly speaking, you could discuss network-wide issues on per-site metas as well. As you said earlier, a natural place for new users is their own meta. "Does this apply just here or everywhere" is a more advanced kind of question, and in 99% of cases, it really doesn't matter. For that reason, I think "family of Q&A sites" is a fine wording across the board. – Adam Lear Oct 2 '14 at 21:08
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    The word "Meta" itself might be turning users off. It doesn't even make sense. It's not an English word. It's not even clear how to pronounce it (didn't Jeff and Joel argue about it on the podcast?). Technical users might be able to infer its meaning from "metadata" and its kin, but remember we have a huge and growing number of non-technical users. – mmyers Oct 2 '14 at 23:53
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    True story, @mmyers: at some point, we're probably gonna need to change the URL scheme for metas in order to make HTTPS work (meta.*.stackexchange.com is no good for certificates). Well, we all got in a big ol' discussion about what the new location should be called - for exactly the reason you bring up... I expect this to remain unresolved right up to the deadline. – Shog9 Oct 3 '14 at 0:02
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    Should this be tagged featured? – Shokhet Oct 3 '14 at 6:17
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    Gravel. Meta is obviously for sifting gravel. And @Won't - shells use $variable too, you just have to see the PHP in everything, don't you? – Tim Post Oct 4 '14 at 15:40
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    FWIW, for most of us, it's no secret at all how truly bizarre meta really is. ;) – Lightness Races in Orbit Oct 7 '14 at 23:42
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A radical idea would be to change the terminology on meta. Not every question on meta is actually a question and answers are not always truly answers. So e.g. we would have inquiries and responses instead of questions and answers on meta (these are placeholder names; I don't actually have a good idea for real ones).

Meta is different, and making some obvious changes like this could help to avoid users applying the main sites rules to meta. It would immediately show that meta is different, and could help to clarify what it is for.

This is just an idea. I'm not convinced that it is actually a good one yet and haven't thought it through, but it is certainly an aspect that currently confuses users on occasion.

A fundamental issue is that meta has to serve two completely different groups: the users that know how meta and the whole network works, and anyone that uses the site and has some problem with it. A problem on highly active metas is that the community tends to apply the standards of the former group to everyone that posts, and that leads to a considerable amount of friction because that is simply an unrealistic expectation directed towards users that barely know how to use the site.

I might be okay with disabling downvotes for support questions. I personally think certain ones deserve downvotes, but my impression is that there are a bit too many undeserved downvotes on support questions. This would leave closing as the main action to deal with bad support questions, which might be enough.

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    If you disable downvotes on support questions question authors will just tag their feature requests as "support" so that they can't be downvoted, or people will end up re-tagging other people's support requests as "discussion" so that they can downvote them. – Servy Oct 2 '14 at 20:20
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    Definitely worth considering, @Mad. Also, while I think disabling voting on a per-tag basis opens up a big can of worms... We should probably consider changing the voting guidance on meta - tag-sensitive guidance makes a ton of sense there. – Shog9 Oct 2 '14 at 20:20
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    One important effect of downvoting on a Meta is preventing a question that truly is just a timesinking trainwreck waiting for Godwin from popping up on the front page. You have to go digging for the entertainme^Wtrouble spots, and are more inclined to spend your time on Meta productively. – Josh Caswell Oct 2 '14 at 20:21
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    @Servy I think that might not be as big a problem as one might expect. Retagging for closing would be a rather serious abuse of power, and could be rather easily stopped by moderators. – Mad Scientist Oct 2 '14 at 20:22
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    @JoshCaswell The really unproductive stuff usually fits the criteria for closing and can be dealt with that way. This is not a perfect idea, it might be the lesser evil but I'm aware that it is rather problematic. And to be honest, being downvotes has never prevented many people from participating in a trainwreck, only deletion does that. – Mad Scientist Oct 2 '14 at 20:25
  • Right, closure (followed by deletion) is very important too, but lowering the visibility can help limit the amount of rotten fruit thrown by rubberneckers. – Josh Caswell Oct 2 '14 at 20:40
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    @MadScientist It is worth remembering to put different ideas in different answers, so they can be voted on separately. For me +1 for the rest of your post, but -1 for the suggestion to limit downvotes. – Mark Hurd Oct 3 '14 at 11:38
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TL;DR

This got a little longer than I expected, but the core of this suggestion is to attack the "meta" problem by trying to simplify meta for new users by highlighting the important content in the "FAQ" category and directing them to existing content. The goal will be to hopefully head off new questions that tend to get downvoted for lack of research.

By simply preventing as many of these questions as possible, you will by default make Meta a friendlier place.


One of the biggest problems I often see is the "lack of research" downvoting. I do it myself, so I am certainly guilty of this too, but I think many well established users forget what it is like to have a question in a new community and have no idea how to even find the answer.

A step to possibly help this would be to make the FAQ more accessible. The posts can be hard to find and are not consistent through all meta sites. The step you took on MSO was a step in the right direction, but I still don't think it does far enough:

There was a FAQ sidebar on the old Meta SO, in recognition of both the Community FAQ and how frequently some questions were re-asked. I've re-enabled that here, in hope of catching a few more people before they ask common duplicates.

Most establish users know how to find the posts, and know how to use it, but it is not intuitive for new users. Likewise, because the faq posts contain such a wealth of information, they can be difficult to filter through. In most cases, the faq posts are far more valuable than the Help Center itself because it does into far more detail and even explains why in a lot of cases. And then add in the fact that the answers to many support questions can be found in the faq.

All of this is compounded by the fact that the posts simply don't exist on a child meta until someone creates it. I realize that is in part by design because you want to encourage the new community to come up with its own guidelines and establish its own identity, but there are a subset of the faq posts that describe how and why the system works as it does, and these will not vary from site-to-site.

So I think the approach to making meta sites more welcoming is to help the new user more and do it in such a way as to make it impossible to miss or ignore.

I think there are multiple components to this solution and all together will make the meta sites a bit easier on brand new users, which should hopefully attack the problem from the new user end instead of from the established user end.


Step 1 - Make the FAQ more complete on all child-meta sites, but still give each community its own voice

Rather than a single tag, we should split it into a and (the names may need some work)

The "Stack Exchange FAQ" questions should be housed on MSE and either linked from the child meta site or be pushed to the child meta site when it is created. Edits should be allowed but edits to the MSE post should take precedence and be psuhed to the child meta posts in order to quickly and easily edit the FAQ to account for changes in the system. These need to get pushed to the child metas because established users need a duplicate target when these types of questions come up, rather than sending someone to MSE just to read a description of something.

The "Community FAQ" questions should be self developed by the community after the private beta ends and continue as the community begins to establish itself. Common questions that are relevant to that community (such as how to flag, how to review, what kind of edits are acceptable, what kind of questions are accepted)

Even if you don't want to split the tag, the most important part here is to seed all meta sites with a portion of the MSE questions to make the "user manual" easily available to all users, even those who only belong to 1 site.


Step 2 - Make the FAQ more obvious

The FAQ posts need to get top billing on every meta (both MSE and the child metas). I know they live in the "frequent" tab, but that just don't jump out at an unfamiliar user as being the "user manual" for a Stack Exchange site. It needs to be more obvious that it is the user manual. Users coming across from forums are used to seeing the "How to Ask" and similar questions pinned to the top of the question list. While we don't want to be a forum, we still need to make it easier to find for users expecting to find it there. Some thoughts on this are:

  • Change the name of the "frequent" tab to something more obvious to the Text-Speak generation, such as FAQ or even just call it "Site Guide" or "User Manual"
  • Giving them a button in the top next to the "Questions" button.
  • The (or the 2 faq tags if Step 1 is completed) should be pinned to the top of the tags page
  • Add a quick search of the FAQ questions. Could be something as simple as pre-populating the FAQ tag(s) in the search box if someone wants to search the user manual.
  • Ensure that the FAQ "table of contents" is the top voted FAQ post or make sure it stays pinned to the top of the tag page (and even the tag search).
  • Ensure all postings within the FAQ have a link back to the "table of contents" question.

Step 3 - Highlight the frequent feature requests page and direct users to it

New users always think they have the "greatest" ideas that no one has ever thought of before. They see a glaring need write a question and wait for a respond. Some even spend a lot of time carefully crafting a good feature request, complete with supporting info and samples, and then they run into a brick wall of downvotes. I think most MSE/MSO users know the biggest one: Should a user be forced to add a comment when they vote to close?

There is a lot of history behind this specific request (and some of the other most common "great ideas"). The established user community is tried of seeing the same feature requests over and over and over again, and the downvotes tend to rain down harder with every time it is asked. While some of the downvotes can be justified as the question itself may be poorly written, there should be a way to head them off by intercepting the question before it is even posted by giving the asker some idea of what the most common feature requests are and linking them to the previous discussion(s).

  • Borrowing from On meta sites, require at least one non-required tag, suggest users add a non-required tag to help categorize their question when they use the tag. Because the non-required tag may not exist, it shouldn't be mandatory, but a strong encouragement should help the users who want to bother to read.
  • Make a link to the "frequent feature requests" prominent when a user selects the tag on a question.
  • Based on the selected tags, show the user the most common feature requests in that tag and strongly encourage the user to read them before they post their question.

Step 4 - Hit new users over the head with the FAQ to the point of annoyance

We all know that most new users don't read everything we give them, and often that is used as a reason not to implement an idea, but for meta sites maybe it is necessary to do something.

  • When a user first accesses the meta site, make sure the FAQ is prominently displayed
  • Make the "frequent" (or whatever it is renamed to) tab the default tab for users with limited meta activity.
  • Prioritize FAQ questions in the "Your question may have an answer" list when asking the question, especially for user below a certain rep.
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    For #3 the page already exists: meta.stackexchange.com/questions/tagged/… - You would just need to point people to it – Servy Oct 3 '14 at 14:15
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    I spent well over a year on the sites before I discovered the meta faq posts, and I found them far more detailed and informative than the ultra-basic faq on the main site at the time. +1 just for your suggestions on improving the visibility of the meta faq. I also think the meta FAQ is a good example of what Meta is used for too, and can give new users the right idea of what the meta site is. – Rachel Oct 3 '14 at 16:10
  • @Servy thanks. I had forgotten the frequent filter existed in the tag search. I have tweak item #3 to address it. – psubsee2003 Oct 3 '14 at 17:06
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Why does the about/tour page not mention Meta?

Either include it there, or make a parallel page (with an EXTRA bronze badge! yay!) on the meta site itself. Or both.

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    More and more, I'm liking the idea of a "meta tour" for new users. – Shog9 Oct 7 '14 at 4:30
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    @Shog9 Maybe also a badge for just visiting meta or voting on a post. Quorum is currently a sorta high bar and forging our bronze badges is relatively cheap (or so I hear); might as well use them to incentivize users. – Double AA Oct 7 '14 at 4:33
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It would be a good idea to encourage new users, who might not be aware of Meta sites, to visit them with questions about the site, especially if they don't understand why their question has been closed/downvoted (invariably, this gets cleared up very quickly in Meta, where in comments it could be bogged down by discussion and other valid comments).

Certain close reasons, such as off-topic or site-specific reasons, might benefit from links to Meta, so that newer users don't get confused.

This, combined with a good FAQ specific to Meta boards, would improve the quality and output not only of the Meta boards, but of the main SE sites as well.

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I think the three bullets in the new Help Center description pretty much covers the "What do you think meta should be used for" part, so nothing to add.

As for "how can we better communicate this intent to new users", I suggest the long time "hard core" members of each meta site (MSE included) will do a joint effort and restrain themselves from casting downvotes too quickly and/or posting snarky comments. I admit falling to this myself sometimes, but I am also willing to try and improve. When new users who decide to stick in the site and start being active would see the veteran users acting polite and not downvoting valid questions out of spite, they will follow.

Can't think of any substantial change in the system itself, but something we can do and currently is not done enough is let users who act wrongly know they did something wrong, maybe linking to this very question.

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tldr; this is essentially in support of status quo

From my understanding, Meta is for discussing issues that arise during the use of the system which should not be placed at the point of encountering them.

How as this recently changed? Not sure it has.

These large meta discussions seem to arise from mSO posts. The major change this year was to make mSO a clean slate. I believe that every once in a while discussions which have been re-hashed so many times before are posted to mSO. However, they are no longer at mSO, they are hidden in the history of MSE now.

The result is a clash between those who remember the original hashing of the issue, along with all the intense back and forth they tend to generate, and those who find legitimate points in the current situation highlighting said issue.

Instead of re-hashing the issue at hand, legacy users down vote, because they know this has already been discussed. Unfortunately, since it is hard to find where, there is not really a good way to send newer users to the original discussion so the downvote is all they get. They feel wronged because they got no response to a legitimate issue.

This circle of old and new discussion is destined to continue. The obvious reason is that as posts age their relevance wanes. But the current reason is that mSO still lacks tens of thousands of posts to support a community of millions. These jarring reflections will continue until the balance between mSO content is more in line with the level of content on Stack Overflow. I believe that number is probably in the 75,000 to 100,000 posts range. Right now, there are only 6800.

So expect to see more of this! When there was only a handful of posts on mSO people were discouraged, mostly because they asked age old questions but did not know it. Now users are finding all of the hidden gems and asking them.

There is no preventing this, and the only advice I would offer is to be ready to answer these questions when they are asked on any metas whose content is greatly lacking. On mSO, we still have a long way to go.

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    So the problem is, we don't just have mSE and mSO... There are 120-some other meta sites, many of which also face the same issues. They're more visible on mSO because... Well, it's SO... But in some ways the problems are actually much worse on other sites, because they don't have a huge population of MSE veterans. – Shog9 Oct 3 '14 at 18:37
  • @Shog9 - Would having a large population of MSE users reviewing small site metas improve the quality of those metas? – Travis J Oct 3 '14 at 18:56
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Mad Scientist makes a good point in his/her answer. If Meta is different, there should be different features to incentivize users acting independently from the main site.

I would focus more on improving communication about 'What Meta is for' to all kinds of users rather than the new ones. New users should inherit good behavior from "elderly".

Here is one suggestion: create some badges specific for Meta [e.g. has positively scored answers in 10 consecutive days adding a minimum +2 score for at least three of the main four meta tags (discussion, support, bug and feature-request), under questions which are not closed and that were not (re)tagged by yourself ---> community-manager (silver)]. The suggestion here would be to open an exclusive post asking for opinions/ideas.

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