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There has been a lot of discussion lately about the toxicity of the Meta sites, whether in reference to users, moderators, or SE staff (e.g., [1][2] from the past few days). I would venture that much of the problem comes from the fact that SE has created a tool—the SE platform—that they are applying much too broadly, and that there are many discussions that do not benefit from the "single question, multiple answer, upvote/downvote" approach.

The goal of meta is to discuss and resolve issues occurring on the main site. Note that "discuss" is one of the goals; the SE platform is specifically constructed to minimize any form of discussion. Comments are non-threaded; they occur wherever they're left. They're also minimized to just show the five most "popular" comments, which—when posted as part of a nuanced discussion—almost always are shown without context, making it even more difficult to understand what's flying. Chat is almost completely dissociated from the main platform, aside from usernames and some convenience question formatting capabilities.

The "single question/multiple answer" approach of Meta is equally unsuited to discussion. A discussion will start with a single question, but will branch out into arguments supporting different positions, and will even more frequently lead to other related points. There is no "best answer" in a discussion. Different answers will frequently say the same point, but slightly differently, and there's no way to indicate that other than "As bob said...". Even worse, the concept of an "answer" to a discussion makes no sense; it's a back and forth, a give and take. The current platform would require the OP to create a whole new question just to address the points brought up in the answer.

Even worse is the voting. Arguments and discussions follow the format of "proposition ➞ discussion ➞ stronger proposition". The voting on a single answer indicates... what? In most cases, it indicates that (1) it wasn't stupid and (2) it was posted quickly. It also strongly indicates popularity, which isn't that strongly correlated with quality. It definitely does NOT indicate that the answer is particularly good, as many good arguments are often posted later and almost completely ignored.


So, what to do? I don't know. This is a discussion. There are many tools for enabling discussions, from online BBs to mind maps (e.g., this sort of thing), and most mediocre at best. That said, I think the SE platform is particularly poorly suited here, given it's specific goal of enabling people to answer specific questions with direct, factual, no-discussion-needed answers.

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    IMHO, the platform is fine. It is all in how it is used. It isn't an exact fit for these types of conversations, but it is close enough. If certain powers-that-be actually responded to the various user posts instead of staying silent and letting the problems get worse, then we wouldn't be here. Commented Oct 24, 2019 at 15:05
  • So, what's the alternative?
    – Cerbrus
    Commented Oct 24, 2019 at 15:06
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    This has been discussed plenty a time at SO. Indeed the Q&A format is downright bad for discussions. I think a more traditional forum model (like reddit etc) would work much better on meta - where you can respond directly to a comment and expand or collapse discussions. In addition, it doesn't make sense to vote on things like service requests and bug reports. Etc. An overhaul would be a good thing, but it won't have solved the current crisis.
    – Lundin
    Commented Oct 24, 2019 at 15:18
  • For some of the original discussion about the topic see question #1 here on meta, though it's missing quite some context because a bunch of highly voted answers got deleted in 2014 for no apparent reason.
    – sth
    Commented Oct 24, 2019 at 17:25
  • @sth: According to the post's timeline, the whole post itself was deleted in December 2014 by the Community bot (with the reason listed as "help post localization backfill", whatever that means). It then remained deleted until it got undeleted (and historical-locked) in December 2016. So I'm guessing those answers remaining deleted is an artifact of whatever caused the whole post to be deleted in the first place.
    – V2Blast
    Commented Feb 14, 2023 at 18:40

2 Answers 2

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This is something we've been dealing with for a while now. The very creation of Meta was taking a platform we said was never a good fit for protracted or opinionated discussions, renamed it meta, and said "Hey, here's where all the discussions go, along with bugs and feature requests!"

That wasn't a terrible idea at all, because it showed us just how versatile the platform can be. It became a bug tracker that worked pretty well for a while, and a feature tracker that worked pretty well for a while, and then there were the numerous edge cases we resolved with "Just post something on meta if that ever happens" from around the network.

It didn't really start to show cracks until a few years ago. It was never super easy for new folks to find things we'd discussed regarding community conventions when it comes to our expectations on how people do things, but it was getting harder. Folks were also increasingly pointing out that it was very hard to find consensus. Comments on the best of days are very difficult to follow and features and bugs are in a constant state of getting away from us.

Not only has meta gotten older, we have as a company too. It started as a one-person-band (well, sort of) where the person who was in charge of setting dev priorities was also the public voice and face of the company - the only real stakeholders were the early users. Sure, we had investors and such, but they only cared that we continued developing the product - we didn't have a bunch of product teams that all had some kind of stake in how certain parts of the software currently worked. And because we're still evolving in that regard, we haven't been able to re-set people's expectations when it comes to how they'll be involved in our product development cycles.

So in short (yeah, there's a tl;dr) - we know it's showing major cracks. The better news is we're pretty soon getting to a place where we can work with the community to figure out what our needs are going forward. We're already having discussions about having those discussions.

I don't think the majority of folks would be too thrilled about the idea of a classic (or even more modernized) style of forum, but that's just it - we don't really know until we come and spell out our needs mutually and figure out what's in the space. We need to make a list of what we need, the community needs to make a list of what it needs, and then we'll see what options look like.

This isn't anything new; I've been talking about the need to overhaul the functionality of our meta sites for at least the last year (both here, on MSO and some other child meta sites). We don't really attract a representative sampling of users from the main sites on meta sites either (admittedly, only certain kinds of users want to engage at this level, but we're pretty sure we could do more to show the value of it to more people).

I don't have a definite timeline and I'm pretty certain it's not going to be a Q4-2019 thing. But it is a ball that's bouncing around the executive ping pong table so I think we've gotten to it being a when more than an if.

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    Even Jeff's original blog post announcing meta treats meta as an unknown and an experiment to see if it'll work. Commented Oct 24, 2019 at 15:26
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    It worked for 6 to 8 years, it will work for another 6 to 8 weeks ;)
    – rene
    Commented Oct 24, 2019 at 15:29
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I'd very much disagree with this. The "toxicity" is not as a result of the tool (or lack thereof), rather, the users.

What you see here is a direct result of years of breakdown in communications and mismanagement all being released in one swift motion due to some recent unpopular changes.

The straw that broke the camel's back, so to speak.


The goal of meta is to discuss and resolve issues occurring on the main site. Note that "discuss" is one of the goals; the SE platform is specifically constructed to minimize any form of discussion.

No, I'd disagree with this too.

MSE (and meta sites in general) are much more lenient with regards to discussions. Heck, the tag even exists to facilitate for such talks (which you've made use of too).

They're also minimized to just show the five most "popular" comments, which—when posted as part of a nuanced discussion—almost always are shown without context, making it even more difficult to understand what's flying.

The onus is upon the reader to expand the comments IF they want to see the full and fair picture. It isn't a failing of the software.

Chat is almost completely dissociated from the main platform, aside from usernames and some convenience question formatting capabilities.

From my understanding, chat is used to discuss looser topics and is frequently used to cut down on the number of comments on post.

The current platform would require the OP to create a whole new question just to address the points brought up in the answer.

This isn't something that's bad, it keeps things compact and on-topic.

The voting on a single answer indicates... what? In most cases, it indicates that (1) it wasn't stupid and (2) it was posted quickly. It also strongly indicates popularity, which isn't that strongly correlated with quality. It definitely does NOT indicate that the answer is particularly good, as many good arguments are often posted later and almost completely ignored.

I take issue with your categorization. Votes, as far as my experiences go, are based on quality alone. I've seen answers posted quickly which were wrong get down-voted to oblivion. You're making a lot of assumptions.


So, what to do?

Nothing.

My honest opinion is that if the day comes that the meta sites are removed, then I truly don't see them being replaced with anything. You'll have the comment sections in the blog post, social media, or the contact page.

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    I guess I still disagree with everything you've said. The fact that the software can be contorted into being useful for discussion doesn't mean it's good at it. Heck, I need to click a link just to see what's being said (expand comments). The platform actively facilitates making discussion difficult.
    – eykanal
    Commented Oct 24, 2019 at 15:28
  • @eykanal even Reddit (famously known for threaded comments and discussions) collapses comments.
    – Script47
    Commented Oct 24, 2019 at 15:29
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    I don't think I'd hold up Reddit as a paragon for encouraging healthy discussion.
    – eykanal
    Commented Oct 24, 2019 at 15:33
  • @eykanal I used the example of Reddit not because of the quality of the content on it, but rather to focus on the tool that powers it. You raised issue of having to click a link to expand comments but my example illustrates that tools specifically created for discussions have the exact feature.
    – Script47
    Commented Oct 24, 2019 at 15:41
  • Note, if someone does want threaded comments, there is a userscript by balpha which does just that. Commented Oct 24, 2019 at 17:22
  • While this might be behind a lot of the recent negativity, sending support requests to say...MSO and having them be massively downvoted has been an ongoing thing for years. That's not really how you want your main support channel to work. Meta has value, but there are some aspects of it that could be splintered off into better systems to handle them.
    – Troyen
    Commented Oct 24, 2019 at 22:04
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    @Troyen can you give me an example of a good report which was massively down-voted?
    – Script47
    Commented Oct 24, 2019 at 22:06

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