I think it was now six years ago that Stack Exchange told us that meta tags are bad. They convinced me.

Up till now we'd managed to keep them off the travel site. Though I suppose a couple of our tags there could have cases brought against them being meta, that had never happened so I think we pretty much believed we were free of them.

Until recently I noticed we acquired a [rationale] tag there. To me this is clearly meta. I started a meta question about getting rid of it because it's a meta-tag and then found we already had a question wanting to get rid of it that did not analyse it as a meta tag.

Anyway that's the background. In the ensuing debate, one of our users stated that each SE site gets to decide whether they want to allow meta-tags or not.

But is this true? My reading of the original blog post against meta-tags were that they're no good for SE and I interpreted that as policy.

If we know it's an SE policy to not use meta-tags then we can argue our case that way.

But if it is indeed open to each site to decide re. meta-tags then we may have to vote on it to proceed.

So what's the story? All bad or up to us?

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    As far as I know, meta tags are not allowed on any Stack Exchange site. I am participating on a site in private beta phase, and that has been remarked on its meta site.
    – apaderno
    Commented Aug 26, 2016 at 15:40
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    If you nitpick, I would say that meta tags are against SE policy but enforcement of that policy is up to individual communities. For example [homework] survived on SO for years after that blog post. Commented Aug 26, 2016 at 15:48
  • @Gilles: Could be. I'd just like to get a wider view of opinions or possibly an official stance as a basis to work from. Enforcement is another interesting topic to look at very soon. Commented Aug 26, 2016 at 15:55
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    @Gilles If you read my answer and then your comment again, that's why we (unfortunately) have to be so "sweeping declaration" about these things in the first place. It's precisely because (as you suggest) if you find an exception, then use that to say it's not really a policy in the first place. When [law enforcement] doesn't stop everyone crossing against the green, it must be up top the individual to decide if it's a law at all. Unfortunately, that's also why we can't have nice things. Commented Aug 26, 2016 at 19:00
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    @RobertCartaino I've read your answer and I don't see anything that says whether SE intends to enforce the policy now. Also, I've read your comment and I think that you intend “crossing against the green” as a metaphor for something that's illegal and that people shouldn't be doing because it's illegal — but FYI in much of the world that's an example of a simple rule you start children off with but adults cross whenever, so your metaphor falls flat. Commented Aug 26, 2016 at 19:53

2 Answers 2


For a quick historical background, tags were designed to describe the subject of a question. That is the purpose of the feature and how the UX was designed. But it wasn't long before folks started using tags to describe other axes than what the question was about. We've all seen tags like [homework] or [big-list] or even [subjective]… but it wasn't long before folks started creating tags to convey things like:

  • This question is too easy to be considered worthy of an expert site
  • This question needs more references
  • This question won't offend the sensibilities of a vegan user
  • This question won't offend the sensibilities of a kosher user
  • This question may offend someone who doesn't like to talk about body parts
  • This question is part of an online project for Ms. Whirley's class — I am not making this up

Sticking to the core purpose for which tags were created is one of those policy decisions that saves us a lot of in-fighting about when and how to go outside the intended use case of a feature. When folks start creating other axes to categorize content, it isn't long before someone else wants to slice it up to fit their vision of the site too (i.e. "everyone please tag questions this way so I no longer have to see them"). That is soon followed by: "five tags isn't enough to categorize all the ways we need". This is the naming debate in a different form. This isn't hypothetical; it's history.

Consider also that these use cases often hamstring the devs trying to improve this stuff. It's not always easy to see how an ad hoc design might break a feature, but it happens all the time. It feels like a weekly occurrence where I write up some great feature improvement to fix a long-standing problem… only to have it shot down because of the rare exception — often from someone using that feature for something else.

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    if you look at this definition of a meta tag you can see clearly that [rationale] on travel is not a meta tag. it is for questions like "why can't I bring a 6 oz container even though I can bring two 3 oz containers?" and not for "What time does the Guggenheim open on Tuesdays?" If you want to argue against it as a tag, this answer rules out "but it's a meta tag" as a strategy Commented Aug 27, 2016 at 18:15
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    @KateGregory: I can't come up with a way that "why" would be the subject. Subjects are the kinds of thing the Dewey Decimal System used by libraries around the world classify books by. There's plenty of books with "why" in their title but no Dewey class for "why" because "about why" doesn't make sense. Because it's not a subject. Commented Aug 28, 2016 at 2:32
  • Are you saying that big-list is not OK? Commented Aug 28, 2016 at 18:59
  • @RobertCartaino please tell me where you found that last one, lol
    – AAM111
    Commented Aug 29, 2016 at 21:31
  • @OldBunny2800 Hehe, the teacher's name is not literal, but the use case has come up on numerous occasions. Here's an example on meta — a tag for students in my University/course Commented Aug 30, 2016 at 13:36

Some sites do unambiguously allow meta tags, such as the soft-question tag on the maths sites.

I don't think the definition of meta tags is all that clear. From the blog post (from meta.cooking):

The reason meta-tags are a problem is that they do not describe the content of the question. They describe some other aspect of the question, like the author's skill level, or the author's motivation for asking it, or generally what "kind" of question it is (poll, how-to, etc.).

Well kind-of-question tags are really common all over the place, from story-identification on Sci-Fi & Fantasy, to single-word-requests on English Language & Usage, to biblical-basis on Christianity. If these are considered to be meta tags, then many sites are definitely deciding for themselves what to allow.

I think the common thing about all of these tags is that they have attached site policies to them:

  • soft-questions are always often community wiki
  • story identification requests have to be as specific as possible
  • word requests have to show the context they would be used in
  • answers aren't allowed to argue against the premise of a biblical-basis question

These tags are all very useful in that they explicitly signal that these extra policies must be followed.

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    The vast majority of the "soft-questions" on Mathematics are not Community Wiki: 421 with wiki vs. 5,769 without (as of this writing). MathOverflow is perhaps better about following this guideline, but even there it's about a 50-50 split.
    – user642796
    Commented Aug 28, 2016 at 11:12
  • @ureser Oh, I stand corrected then. I rarely visit either site, mostly just from the hot network questions list, and when soft-questions appear there they're almost always community wiki. Commented Aug 28, 2016 at 11:29
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    additional example of a meta-tag: beginner on Code Review Commented Aug 28, 2016 at 12:27
  • At least Mathematics got rid of the homework tag in 2014. Commented Aug 28, 2016 at 19:16
  • math overflow is a bad example because they have unusual circumstances -- they grew up far outside the SE network and were sort of shoe-horned in later in a very special case. Commented Sep 6, 2016 at 9:15
  • @JeffAtwood I'm aware of that, but it is only one of several sites which allow meta tags, and the question does say all SE sites so MO still counts... whether the policy should be enforced is not for me to say, I'm just giving some examples where it currently isn't Commented Sep 6, 2016 at 9:22
  • @curiousdannii no, MathOverflow does not have to follow any SE policies or guidelines per special agreement the MO company and SE signed before MO entered the SE network, if they consider them to be not useful for their academic community. Generally, it would be much better if each community had the same freedom as MO has; in particular the science sites ...
    – Dilaton
    Commented Oct 7, 2016 at 21:53

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