On English Language & Usage Meta there has been a recent debate about a question asking users for stories about:

how you ended up on ELU, how it has helped you, and perhaps more importantly, what keeps you here.

The question was inspired by similar questions on other Meta sites, including:

On EL&U Meta, the question was closed as off-topic, then reopened, and now there is a second Meta question discussing whether or not the first should have been closed as off-topic.

Some users, including a moderator who answered the second question, take the view that asking about users is off-topic on meta pages, as evidenced by the help center.

Personally, it seems to me that this particular case isn't addressed in the help center page. I'm of the opinion that such questions can be useful for learning about what keeps users active on the site, what attracted them there, etc., for gleaning insight into how to make the site more attractive to potential users who could add value to the site.

Is asking this sort of question on a meta page objectively off-topic? Is this something that has to be determined on a site-by-site basis, or is there any network-wide rule or guideline that would apply?


4 Answers 4


If you're asking whether there's a network-wide ruling on this, there is not.

I'm aware of a question on Science Fiction and Fantasy asking whether a similar type of questions are off topic: Should meta posts regarding the deaths of figures that are important to SFF:SE be on topic? In fact, I would argue that this is even less relevant to the function of the site than a question used as a place for users to introduce themselves.

Despite that, the community decided that they should be on topic. When a user answered the question saying that they should be off topic, Shog9, one of the Community Managers responded in the comments:

None of the questions listed has ever been closed; if there's a history of problematic "memorial" posts here, you should list some examples and describe the problems they caused. Generally-speaking, the meta site exists for discussion of anything directly relevant to the community on SF&F. – Shog9♦ Dec 29 '16 at 18:28

This is the generic "What is meta" description, @Matt. Purpose #1 covers pretty much anything where y'all are talking to each other. What that means in practice is mostly up to you: if there are things you don't want to talk about, then they're off-topic. My point was simply that this was rather less controversial before the question was asked than it has become afterwards - hence encouragement to cite an actual problem rather than hand-waving at non-existent rules. – Shog9♦ Dec 30 '16 at 2:47

As a note, purpose #1 on all sites reads (specific to site):

Meta is for Science Fiction & Fantasy Stack Exchange users to communicate with each other about Science Fiction & Fantasy Stack Exchange (asking questions about how the websites work, or about policies and community decisions)

My interpretation of these two quotes is that, as far as the CM is concerned, anything the site wants to talk about on meta and decides as a site to allow, is welcome on meta with the caution that if the questions are causing problems, they should probably be stopped.

This means that, in the end, deciding whether these topics should be allowed isn't something that Stack Overflow, Inc. is going to dictate, instead leaving it to the site to pick. So, if English Language & Usage chooses to allow or prohibit these questions, that is up to them and, if/when that is decided, it should be respected.

As a moderator on Interpersonal Skills, the site that has been attributed with inciting the OP of the ELU meta post to make it, we have no plans to close our version of the question, seeing it as a way to foster community engagement and give our users the chance to share why they choose to be a part of the site.

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    I don't know how perfect the SFF memorial comparison is - why people participate on a Stack Exchange site seems more directly related to the site (in a meta way) than that. (I suppose it's also a lot broader, though, can have far more answers.)
    – Cascabel
    Sep 26, 2017 at 1:20
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    @Cascabel sure but the point of the comments is the emphasis on the statement "What that means in practice is mostly up to you: if there are things you don't want to talk about, then they're off-topic."... which implies the inverse "Things you want to talk about are on topic".
    – Catija
    Sep 26, 2017 at 1:21
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    Thanks for an excellent answer. If this is up to the community, I wonder how we can reach a consensus. The original meta question has 10 upvotes and 10 downvotes, and there's little consensus on the second question. I suppose we simply continue the discussion. Sep 26, 2017 at 2:27
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    @RaceYouAnytime Seems like a good plan. Honestly, my personal thoughts align very much with Jefromi's answer, so my feelings would be, if the site is undecided, they should be on topic until they prove to be unmanageable... but clearly some of the users on ELU are vehemently opposed.
    – Catija
    Sep 26, 2017 at 2:52
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    Thank you Catija. Means a lot to me.
    – NVZ
    Sep 26, 2017 at 3:23
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    As much as we argue, sometimes you really kick ass. Thanks for what you do.
    – apaul
    Sep 26, 2017 at 7:20
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    @apaul34208 You started this. LOL :P
    – NVZ
    Sep 26, 2017 at 7:32
  • @NVZ I didn't start it I just continued what I think could be a nice tradition.
    – apaul
    Sep 26, 2017 at 7:34
  • @apaul34208 That, you did. :)
    – NVZ
    Sep 26, 2017 at 7:37
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    This is a case of "pick up the ball and run with it", @NVZ. That's how an excellent random idea develops into a tradition. I appreciate your initiative to bring it to English.SE which has sometimes been negative in such matters: instead of thinking why, we might think why not? as 'your story' question demonstrates. William Webb Ellis literally picked up a football (soccer ball) and ran with it: thus the great sports of rugby union and rugby league were born. Sep 26, 2017 at 16:16
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    @Catija I get the way you're making the argument; I guess my point of view is that we shouldn't need that sort of argument here. This subject is a huge part of how these sites actually work, so it is not merely a subject people may want to talk about (and thus on-topic on meta) but it is something that must be on-topic if meta is to serve the interests of the site. It's not something that should be left up to the whims of the site, any more than the topicality of discussing site scope should be.
    – Cascabel
    Sep 27, 2017 at 0:16

I think what is on topic on a site's meta is going to be largely up to the individual site. I should also note that I have no account on ELU, don't visit without an account to read the occasional thread or find answers from Google (as I do on some sites), etc.

I see no reason a-priori why such a question shouldn't be on topic on a site's meta, if they decide it's OK for them. Moreover, my reading of the linked meta help page suggests it would be within the scope. To wit:

Meta is for...

  • ...English Language & Usage Stack Exchange users to communicate with each other about English Language & Usage Stack Exchange ...

Asking other ELU users about their experience of the site seems perfectly consistent with that to me. As a result, I would not have assumed that I first needed to ask a different meta question regarding whether that meta question could be asked on meta, which the linked answer seems to take for granted. Viz.,

What you should have done was to ask whether such a question would be on-topic (or granted a derogation) before asking it.

(Note that the boldface and italics are in the original.)

Edit: To quote more fully from meta.ELU's help page:

Meta is for...

  • ...English Language & Usage Stack Exchange users to communicate with each other about English Language & Usage Stack Exchange (asking questions about how the websites work, or about policies and community decisions)

(The boldface is in the original.) There is a legitimate question of how to interpret this sentence. In general, parenthetical phrases are used to provide examples, elaborate, constrain, or qualify a point made in the main clause. One might read the parenthetical phrase here very literally and think of it as constraining the set of possible on-topic meta.ELU questions to only those listed. Indeed, the linked answer only quotes the parenthetical phrase (without the parentheses or ellipses to signal that some context was not included) implying to me that that was their reading. On the other hand, my reading of the full sentence is that the parenthetical phrase is illustrating some of the cases that could fall within the scope of meta.SE.

My conclusion from this is the same as I stated at the top: The users on each SE site can decide for themselves what discussions about their site should be considered on-topic on their meta site. For example, the users of ELU can decide that questions about ELU users are on-topic or off-topic on their meta site. Moreover, I think they can change their minds over time such that at one point it's considered on-topic and later becomes off-topic, or vice versa. In contrast, they should not ever decide that threads about users' stories should be on-topic on their main site—that is verboten. But there is nothing here that precludes a site from deciding they want such things to be on-topic on their meta.

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    I like how you omitted the relevant clarification of that EL&U meta site rule to shore up your point: English Language & Usage Stack Exchange users to communicate with each other about English Language & Usage Stack Exchange (asking questions about how the websites work, or about policies and community decisions) – second emphasis mine. You can't've interpreted it in the way you suggest unless you'd stopped reading at the point where the explanation begins.
    – user371235
    Sep 26, 2017 at 7:14
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    Setting aside the sarcasm, I read the whole thing but quoted only the part I thought was germane (it is also the complement of the only part quoted in the linked ELU answer, but that's a coincidence). In general, parenthetical phrases are used to provide examples, elaborate, constrain, or qualify a point in the main clause. I gather you read that very literally & thought of it as constraining the possibilities to only those listed. You seem to think that no other reading could be taken w/o the reader being corrupt. I take it as illustrating some of the cases that could fall w/i the scope. Sep 26, 2017 at 13:11
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    @gung I suggest that you add that comment info into your answer itself; that the part in the parentheses are just examples and not constraints. Nice answer. Thanks.
    – NVZ
    Sep 26, 2017 at 13:40

I believe this subject should absolutely be on topic on metas. It's still possible to ask good or too-broad versions of it, but the topic is fine.

We may sometimes like to think of Stack Exchange sites as pure, ideal Q&A sites: with the questions and answers being the end goal and the only relevant thing, and not the users.

But I've spent enough time here, and as a moderator, to see clearly that the users matter above all else. If people are able to easily discover the site, learn how to participate "correctly", and maintain their interest over time, then the site grows and prospers. If we want to think about how to grow a site (a pretty common goal!) or even maintain it, that's absolutely the perspective we have to come at it from.

So not only is this subject on topic, I think it's central to what we do here.

I do think it might be preferable to narrow the question a bit, so as to avoid soliciting full stories from a rather large number of people all at once. But rejecting it as fundamentally off-topic seems not only unwarranted, but honestly a bit counterproductive to site- and community-building.


I think that it should be not only on-topic but (in many cases, if perhaps not all SE sites) encouraged. Community building is important. In theory, Stack Exchange is only about Q&A, and nothing else really matters; in practice, experience across the network has taught me that what really makes users committed to an SE site is feeling like they're part of a community of people.

  • If a site means nothing more to you than a repository of knowledge on a particular subject, then you might still post the occasional Q&A there but not get so deeply involved in e.g. meta or review or moderation tasks.
  • If you feel like you know some of the other people involved in a site, like you'd miss them if you left the site, even like they're your friends, then you're much more likely to remain actively involved in the site and keep coming back.

Again, this is based on my observations of how SE actually works, not on the theory of what it's supposed to be all about.

Given that community building is important, where to do it? Well, one obvious place is chat - an informal location where people can talk to each other about almost anything and get to know each other without having to be on-topic. But for sites without an active chat (or even many sites with one), meta can be an equally good place for community building. As pointed out by Catija above, defining meta as a place for site users to communicate about the site is actually pretty broad and can cover a lot of different types of discussion. (Note the word discussion, which is anathema on main but encouraged on meta. Personally I feel that moderation of meta should often be more lax than on main, especially when it comes to closing and deleting. Discussions and opinions are fine there.)

It's also worth noting that this has already been in the FAQ since 2014:

The Real Essential Questions of Every Beta

Increasing Community Participation

1. Who are you? Why are you participating on this site?

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    I agree with (and have upvoted) the excellent answers from Jefromi and Catija, but felt it was worth adding my own if only to point out that this has been in the FAQ for years already. Sep 26, 2017 at 13:59
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    :D My answer would not have been possible without you :P
    – Catija
    Sep 26, 2017 at 14:59
  • Of note: in the FAQ you quote, the text under the "Who are you?" question says "This one is debatable. This is more in line with discussions on other forums..." It goes on to list a few reasons that the question is useful for the community. So even though it's in the list of Real Essential Questions, there's a bit of an asterisk. Sep 26, 2017 at 17:29
  • @AndrewMyers True. But it's still been there in a CW post for three years, with nobody editing it out and (AFAIK) without drawing any controversy. Sep 26, 2017 at 21:50

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