We need to clarify something. What are listed in this answer are not necessarily inherently immoral, unethical, tactless, or any other form of ‘wrong’. After all, the biggest reason they are listed here is they’re common enough, and they usually make enough sense at first, but ultimately, as experience has proved, do not bode well for online discourse. As open to subjective interpretation as that may be, it should be the ultimate goal of your meta post. If you’re posting for lolz, sorry, we don’t do that in meta (anymore).
Another important point is that we do not challenge the validity of claims, assumptions, and the truth value of statements presented here overall. What really matters is that they’re not great starting points to present an argument. Specifically, “unfounded” assumptions might as well ring true to some ears, but lack of evidence in itself devalues their worth in a debate. Misunderstandings about the system can arise due to benevolent feelings of community and sympathy, but nevertheless are misguided and hamper progress in building a resource that would benefit every visitor.
That said, let’s start out with some things we can usually agree are some form of wrong. People do these when they’re emotionally affected, which simply tells us not to drink or be emotional while posting on meta. I hope this compilation is a better initial guide than the mere “do a research” tips, which, while true, are overgeneralized, ambiguous, and time-consuming.
Most examples are adapted from real poorly received meta posts, often with slight tweaks.
1.0. Frustrated, Defensive Tone
Yes, tone. That’s what’s 1st on the list. It might at first be unclear why — if a post has a suggestion to make, and if said suggestion is likely to help the system, and if not, merits its chance of discussion anyway, why would tone matter?
The truth is, the more you stick around, the more instinctive it becomes to select discussions you think would be fruitful, and one of the deciding factors is the intentions on OP’s (Original Poster) behalf. Folks that will view your question are very likely not to have ever met you, or be involved in anything that has triggered your meta post. The way you present your request, the words, the sentence structure, will generally give away your intentions, and make the most important impression on the reader. Dealing with uncooperative OPs who look for validation of their opinion is unpleasant and an emotional burden, and certainly not what people come to meta for.
Granted, this requires some experience to perfect. Unpleasant topics, sometimes outright criticism of the readers, can be discussed constructively, but that doesn’t mean most people would be able to word it so delicately as to incur self-reflection. However, there are a few things you can look out for not to disinterest or put off the readers:
1.1. Avoid Stronger Features of the Language
These include rhetorical questions (typically), loaded statements, and so on. If you’re filing a complaint on meta, look out for what you’re implying when you include “even”, “yet another”, “of course”, etc.
Is this yet another example of this community’s unwillingness to listen?
If you see yourself typing this sentence, you need to take a step back and think about what you want to achieve with it. “Tough love” and ‘provoking’ improvement through heavy criticism might fly elsewhere, but here, you have asserted that there are more examples of this, you are aware of them, you have predicted the readers’ reaction, and you are most probably uninterested in the final answer, all before the people addressed have even had a chance to defend themselves. It’s not rocket science to deduce the reaction to that.
1.2. Avoid Any Sort of Attacks
New users have a terrible experience, and will ultimately be the downfall of this site.
I believe many power users are so focused on reputation and rules that they are no longer here to simply help people.
Heavily entangled with the wording, and easily summed up in a generic “you suck”, no matter how verbose you are about it, or how many blog posts you link to (yes, we are all aware of them), bare name-calling of the other side, assuming they are malicious, hostile, ignorant, or illiterate, has absolutely no place on your post, if you’re intending to get a point across.
If you prove you’ve been wronged on a post, you may be surprised to learn that it’s easy enough to correct the wrong, be it a moderator action on a controversial post, or the dupehammer abilities of users with gold tag badges. If you badmouth the other side, you remove the incentive to cooperate, or even discuss ideas.
1.3. Avoid Psychological Interpretations
[This] is a great recommendation related to classical conditioning and improving Stack Overflow.
This is an odd one, and strangely common too. Sometimes, people want to justify behavior they can’t understand or relate to, inferring from, or referring to some psychological model, perhaps as a sort of “This isn’t you, but a product of the environment.” statement.
It is pretty okay when you have some ideas on what you’re doing, although, considering most of the readers and the writer typically do not have a degree in psychology, it ends up backfiring, dehumanizing readers. It bears the implication that they do not act at their own discretion, and do not put thought into what they’re doing, unless you’re very careful what you assert.
1.4. Don’t Single Out Users
[D]etermined close-voters close the question anyway with some other unrelated reason
One big signpost of an emotion-driven unproductive discussion is when a user, or a subset of users, end up being singled out for an activity (typically of moderation), whether or not it’s justifiable, in such a fashion it resembles the police yelling halt at a convicted felon. Online mishaps (especially ones that can happen everyday), are seldom so serious. If your post is closed, your edit is rejected, or your comment deleted (§ 3.5.), focus on the why instead. You’d then either learn why such edits, questions or comments are unacceptable, or revert your activity to its previous state, achieving the goal you wanted.
If you really can’t discuss it without pointing somewhere, do it at your own risk. You should be absolutely certain that a certain action deserves a blinding, overwhelming spotlight on someone or a group — which is what focusing on them in a meta post precisely does — as opposed to a certain behavior being the cause for concern.
2.0. Unfounded Assumptions
The next item on the list, well worth analyzing, is the unfounded assumptions commonly found in meta posts that end up with a poor reception. Frustration, and emotions in general, also often fuel these. It’s not possible to emphasize enough how important it is not to write meta when you’re the most emotional.
An important buzzword you should be looking out for is “I feel” (and to a lesser extent “I think” and “I believe”). If you find that you need to insert an “I feel” before your assertion, take a few moments to reevaluate your statement. Do you have any hard evidence of what you’re asserting, and more importantly, is there causation between your observation and what you assert might be the cause?
2.1. Voters Don't Understand
I think the close voter did not read the question carefully or he don’t understand.
This non sequitur is as common and as old as meta itself.
- I do believe my post is well-written.
- I do not understand the negative reception.
- Therefore, the only possible reason to downvote a well-written question is if the downvoter did not understand it.
This is quite a bit of a leap. Regardless of the fact that votes in general are anonymous, and that you should not assume who downvoted your post, there are lots of reasons for why someone might have voted on your post, some valid, some not. Unless votes form a pattern of detectable fraud, it’s the voter’s right to express them however they wish.
Either way, arguing whether or not the reasons were valid — whether you should take the criticism of your post into consideration is entirely up to you — has no bearing on the question’s own merit, hence irrelevant and a non sequitur. Once you’ve realized this, quite a lot of posts with this unfounded assumption fall apart.
The same goes for close votes. The take-away should be that your focus should be on your post; it’s the only thing you can control to change the voting patterns on it, and the down or close votes are attached to the post, not you, nor the person giving out the feedback. (§ 4.4.)
2.2. Reception Is Based on Difficulty
Another consequence of that is that when you get DIFFICULT question, you won't be getting answer on SO.
Some newbies get downvoted due to not editing their questions properly and some due to asking very basic questions.
Amusingly enough, meta sees both assumptions of questions being rejected as being too complex and too simple, the latter hinting at “criticizers don’t understand” also (§ 2.1.).
This is one important example of something that might as well ring true in some sense in some cases, but is never a good starting point to defend your position. Regardless of the subjective nature of these metrics, simpler questions are open to judgment by a larger group of users, and are perhaps under some scrutiny as they are more likely to be answered by commonly available resources. Likewise, relatively more complicated questions would be uninteresting to most of the audience. In any case, the whole notion of difficulty playing a role in the ultimate fate of a thread is a red herring.
Well-framed questions, both simple and complex, are known to be generally well-received. Posts with concise problem statements, a not-too-distracting demonstration of research, and an effort at careful composition with correct grammar and wording to the author’s best ability, signifying their respect for the readers’ time, often end up well-received.
As a result, the way of putting forth a defense of a post on meta has mostly to do with its usefulness to future visitors, argued through how easily searchable a topic is, how unique are the answers to a question, etc. Arguments based on the question’s difficulty very rarely ever get anywhere.
2.3. Bias Against New Users
I feel that new contributors are often treated a bit harshly.
The negative implications of “harshly” aside (§ 4.4.), this would be a valid observation. Negative reception on main (and meta) posts are disproportionately skewed towards newer users. However, problems arise when it is assumed that the cause for the negative reception is the age of user accounts. Correlation does not imply causation. Indeed, when you find it necessary to point out it is the “new contributors” that get the unfair treatment, you’re very likely to base your argument on being new being the cause.
Stack Overflow, and Stack Exchange in general, are typically diverse communities and this may indeed shape the behavior of some users. Nonetheless, it is impossible to analyze intentions, to see whether a problem of new user prejudice exists, or that veteran users simply have a better understanding of the ways to express themselves without unnecessarily ruffling some feathers. If there is one person that doesn't prejudice against new users and is willing to defend their stance on meta, the entire discussion derails into a clash of opinions and perceptions and the premise of the discussion gets lost.
2.4. Reviewer/Closer Cliques
Cliques, online social groups of a few designated users (“cool kids” if you may), are one of the most dreaded features of online communities. The way the closure banner is displayed at the moment certainly might give a similar impression to the more cynical eyes, what with the fact that it takes five people or less to close any question.
The way the review queues are designed, however, don’t allow for much clique-ish behavior. Statistically, the number of closures from five people who didn’t have any sort of communication with each other makes up the majority of closed questions.
Cliques moderating content (or censoring what they don’t “like”) is a baseless accusation at best and outright insulting the volunteer effort to curate content for future audience at worst. Only bring this up if you have concrete examples and evidence.
Very common duplicates, just like in normal Q&A, bring no one any joy. If you stick around in meta, one of the first things you will notice is how weary folks are (meta regulars and bystanders alike) of ideas discussed to such a degree that almost nothing new can be added to the table. The term “octuplicate” was coined very early for expressing this very concept. It is, of course, best if you search around for any suggestions you have to make anyway, but here are common octuplicates and a brief summary of what has already been discussed.
3.1. Require Downvote Comments
Encouraging people to explain downvotes
- There is already a non-intrusive popup encouraging people to explain their downvote below certain reputation.
- Votes have an anonymous nature to prevent unnecessary drama. Requiring comments would jeopardize that.
- There is no systematic way to evaluate the massive rise in the number of comments resulting from requiring them. Gibberish comments would be posted to bypass the restriction.
- This would hinder moderation efforts greatly, if to stop a few “bad” votes. Do not throw the baby out with the bathwater.
3.2. Privilege Reputation Threshold
Why do I need 50 reputation to comment?
- The threshold for privileges has been built rigidly into the system. There needs to be an extraordinary reason to change them. (§ 5.0)
- The most commonly complained about threshold is for “commenting everywhere”, awarded at 50 reputation.
- 50 reputation is not a very high bar. Many users have effortlessly reached it. A combination of post upvotes (+10) and suggested edits (+2) can easily boost reputation.
- Comments have no review queue, and new comments are not monitored. Lowering the bar makes it trivial for spammers and abusers to overwhelm the system.
- More experienced users are awarded 100 reputation upon joining a new site, and will be able to comment.
3.3. Pleas For Help
A day in the penalty box
What can I do when getting “We are no longer accepting questions from this account”?
- Suspensions are handed out by site moderators after thorough consideration and consolidation of the mod team or sometimes Community Managers.
- The account resumes as normal after the suspension; we don’t hold grudges. Until then, other than moderator responses, there is no way to appeal the suspension and bringing it up on meta won’t help.
- Question bans are automatic, based on non-disclosed criteria. They cannot be lifted unless the questions/answers are better received.
- Please read more guidance on meta on how to edit your previous posts, or contribute positively in other ways. Undelete, and edit your previous posts as deleted posts count towards the ban. People visiting the meta post will not be able to lift your ban.
3.4. Moderator Grievances
What recourse do I have if I believe a moderator has abused their privileges?
- Viewers of the question have very little knowledge of what really is going on. Trying to provide more context seldom ends up any better, and some info shouldn’t be disclosed.
- If you take issue with how a moderator has handled a situation, use “contact us” in the footer section of every page. Community Managers will process and respond to the issue.
- More often than not, this moderator action is impersonal. (§ 4.4.)
3.5. Comment Deletion
How do comments work?
- Comments are ephemeral in nature. Comments containing useful information should be incorporated into the post in some way. If that is not possible, the comment is not immediately relevant to the answer.
- Comments should be used for clarifications and critiques of a post. They are temporary “Post-it” notes. Comments should not be used to answer questions.
- Due to loose monitoring and sheer volume, chatty and obsolete comments may stay around, but that does not mean they should not be deleted. (§ 4.5.) “Thank you”s are chatty comments. (§ 4.3.)
- Comment deletions are typically not considered an important issue. Your comment needs to strictly adhere to commenting guidelines (ask for clarification or provide relevant commentary on an answer) to be restored.
3.6. Proposed Change to a Site
How do I propose a new site?
- There are no special reasons why an SE site exists and why another doesn’t.
- Sites are proposed through Area 51. If they get enough traction, they will enter private, and subsequently public betas.
3.7. Newbie Section, Subjective Section, etc.
Propose Newbie-Overflow site or section
Reigning in the subjective vigilantes
Would it be a terrible idea to split SO up into a tiered platform?
- The reception of a post is correlated with its difficulty but not caused by it. (§ 2.2.)
- Costly changes to the system need to be overwhelmingly beneficial for all of the sides involved. (§ 5.0.)
- Separating questions based on “expertise” is condescending, subjective, and impractical.
- Many experts would not frequent the “newbie” site; hence, post quality and trustworthiness would suffer. People new to a subject would simply prefer asking it in the experts section.
- A site “for fun” and subjective questions deemed off-topic on normal SE sites would fail as people would view but not rather contribute new content. This is empirical data.
4.0. Common misunderstandings
There are a few common misunderstandings about how the site works, often well-intentioned but misguided. They set the basis of a faulty line of reasoning, and set quite a lot of feature requests for a very unpopular reception. If you wish not to accept our arguments, we don’t expect you to be convinced any more by this post than other, more elaborate discussions on each, but it is a good chance to appreciate the standpoint of the majority of the community that renders the content on SE sites readable.
4.1. Help Desk Reasoning
This is a tough one, in that it makes a faulty assumption based on a very innocuous statement and that it’s one of the integral mission statements of any SE site. It hardly gets any more fundamental than that.
SO/SE is meant to help people.
This statement is true in itself, but helping for the sake of helping will not yield any results. You cannot help with carrying a piano if you have a back injury, and SO cannot cater to questions it’s not equipped to deal with.
The primary vision of SO (and subsequently the SE network) was helping people by being what the rest of the internet did not offer: An interactive repository of knowledge. Most features and UI elements of SO and SE follow a strict model of cut-and-dried interaction with little noise and back-and-forth. It’s suboptimal at best, and dysfunctional at worst, for tutoring, one-on-one teaching, discussing, and blogging. That has nothing to do with how valid or relevant such threads would be for people interested in the topic of the site, but that the SE itself does not provide a suitable medium for those sort of interactions.
The mission is still ultimately helping people, but you cannot help everyone, and sometimes a thread conflicts with the ultimate mission of being a reference, leaving us to choose between helping one person and everyone else in the future that would visit another thread. SO has an option of being an online tutoring service, helping one OP at a time — and tutoring is a more tedious task, regardless — or helping a lot of people by fine-tuning the content to apply to a broader audience. Those are mutually exclusive.
4.2. SO Is a Social Website
Discussions and feature requests that build up on making SO a more social medium are very unlikely to get a positive reception. They typically come in two forms of adding new features to the site that exist on other social media (such as emojis or typing indicators), or requests that would increase communication between users without a focus on the content (such as following users)
Some of these feature requests would distract from the content on the page and add more noise, and others are rejected as a bigger focus on content than the people contributing it has been one of the things that allow content to be useful in general.
4.3. “Thank you” Is Good!
So... This is one of those ideas that sounds really caring. Who could possibly be against expressions of gratitude!
I mean, sure, they get noisy for 3rd-party readers after a while, but hey, small cost compared to making authors feel good right?
Well... After a while, they ain't that much fun for authors either — Shog9 (source)
In keeping with the ”repository” spirit of the community, taglines (“— UserXXXX”), salutations (“Hi”), Thank-yous and similar ‘noise’ are typically edited out of posts when noticed. (This has nothing to do with pedantry, hostility (§ 1.2.) or robotic behavior (§ 1.3.), and it is in fact in line with helping create a useful resource for posterity.) There are several reasons for this, including:
- They take up the very precious space most online readers pay the most attention to.
- They are rendered redundant by features in the system (Upvotes and User cards).
- Verbal gratitude does not even serve its own purpose after a while (See above link).
4.4. They Downvoted Me
There is generally a discrepancy between how newer users interpret moderation and criticism compared to more experienced ones. Unfortunately, it is so prevalent it has become clear to be impossible to correct as a misunderstanding, but some mutual understanding is not impossible.
The workflow for most people moderating posts involves fairly big chunks at a time, typically involving posts with the latest activity. Moderation is often impersonal, as a result. “Vote on the content, not the people” has been the prevailing mantra of more experienced users, and the most productive way to approach building a resource people can refer to.
The negative feeling accompanied with criticism of every sort is natural, but the best way to cope with it is attempting to improve where possible, or a rebuttal of invalid criticism in an orderly and calm fashion. Basing your meta discussion on the assertions that the actions relate to yourself as a user, or the other side, rarely end up well. Users are online entities with good or questionable actions and intentions, but it’s the behavior that needs to be addressed, whether it should be encouraged or stopped.
Finally, meta site accounts do not have a reputation associated with them (with the exception of meta.SE), and people exercise their downvotes on metas more liberally. They are often handed out for the reasons outlined in this post, borrowing from disagreement, lack of research, or the like. They are almost always impersonal as well.
4.5. Apparent Double Standards
Another commonly seen argument in response to moderation involves bringing up older questions and ask why theirs was treated “more harshly”. This also hints at the mindset of moderation being taken personally. (§ 4.4.)
Numerous older questions have been rendered off-topic as sites matured and narrowed their scope to keep out low-quality posts from drowning high-quality contributions. The very existence of “historical locks” on SO attests to that. There are hardly any sites where scope change has been as extreme as Stack Overflow, but community scopes can change dramatically in communities as young as a few months.
There are also cases where a post simply slips through moderation, and is later brought to attention. Fair treatment is the ultimate goal — for what it’s worth, what the community closes and what is left open set examples for what is and is not acceptable — but it is not always consistent or comprehensive. If you believe a post has been wrongfully left open when it doesn’t meet the quality standards, you should bring it to the community’s attention via flagging. It is as urgent as reopening a thread that you believe was wrongfully closed.
Anyway, arguing not to be subject to the rules simply because another post wasn’t is fallacious and moot. Argument from the fallacy of double standards will not drive the point home, and it will only derail the discussion.
5.0. Cost–benefit analysis
Perhaps the biggest reason unpopular miscellaneous feature requests that do not fit into any of the categories above fail is requesting fundamental or time-consuming changes to the system without clear evidence or description of why they might be helpful.
A very useful piece of advice is unless you’re absolutely, positively certain a certain feature change will be trivial work that would not require a considerable amount of developer time, you should either change your position into discussing it, soliciting community opinion on why or why not it would be an improvement to the existing features, or disregard the post entirely.
This perspective might sound a bit defeatist, but please consider that there is a large backlog of good ideas asked over the years that await serious consideration or implementation, and since the software that powers SO and SE sites has been around for a long time, it has matured and good ideas have a good chance of already being discussed.
All things considered, if you want to attain some form of understanding of meta, reading this list can never replace real meta participation. The sort of higher understanding that comes after you’re acquainted with meta’s quirks, itself being an odd mixture of persuasive prose in winning online debates, and familiarizing oneself with the passions of the vocal part of the community that runs a sizeable portion of SO and the SE network’s moderation tasks, is only achievable if you go the extra mile and take the time to learn walking on these lands until you’re able to run.
If your post need to be so urgently off your chest immediately, it might not be the best idea to post it somewhere people are looking to flesh out ideas to make the system better, and you’re better off considering whether it is appealing to people who don’t share the same feelings at the moment. Experienced meta users are not only more familiar with their audience, but are also granted the ability to separate the sentimental value of a thought from its feasibility. If it can wait, you might as well give it some time, read a few meta posts beforehand and try to get a grasp of the atmosphere, and especially how or why the voting behavior on meta works the way it does.
If we were to sum this thread up in a few easy-to-remember guidelines, they would be
- Not to post when you’re emotional
- Include some evidence on why your idea is worthwhile
- Read previous more recent meta posts on the topic
Nobody believes the current system is perfect. People are often open to good ideas on how to improve the system and the experience for both the curators and bystanders, and discussing them, whether or not it will lead to implementation, is considered worthwhile, at least subconsciously, by the people that stick around.