“Measures to separate MO from the rest of the stackexchange network”, and various other recent meta questions, have discussed (among other things) opting out of the stackexchange-wide hot list.

I’ve not seen anyone yet addressing the sub-question: what downsides, if any, could such an opt-out have? Is MO (or Stackexchange as a whole) currently getting any benefits from MO questions on the hot-list?

In particular, the most obvious possible benefit is bringing new users to MO, or keeping existing users active by giving them pointers back to MO from other SE sites. Of course, these are only desirable so far as the users are “good” users — people engaging seriously with research-level mathematics, not just kibbitzing and upvoting the more popularly accessible questions.

My expectation would be that we don’t gain many new good users this way, but that it might help keep existing good users active. But this is just a guess; does anyone have any evidence, anecdotal or statistical, on either of these? Or ideas on other possible downsides to an opt-out?


2 Answers 2


The key benefit is its potential entertainment value; some question in there are fun/interesting for many (so one should see this in a more altruistic way, MO is in there since everybody is in there to create better entertainment for everybody). And, this is it seems also the main (sole?) purpose (or at the very least an important one in one highly influential user's opinion) see https://meta.stackexchange.com/a/220099.

That being said, I think for some sites (such as MO) the negative side effects are more severe than for others, and one could thus consider to let sites opt out of this list. Yet, in my (revised) opinion the hot list is almost a non-issue. A lot more traffic can come from reddit and alike, and there is not much to be done about that (excluding drastic changes I assume we do not want to consider). Yet, I continue to think that voting-by-association-only is a useless anti-feature that should be disabled ASAP; as long as visitors can only passively look at the question (answering can be easily blocked via a 'protect') there is not much problem, it only starts to be a problem when visitors start to vote and thus influence the site.

However, realistically, it will not happen, in any case not soon, and thus I really recommend to read the last part of Shog9's answer linked above regarding the root cause and what actually can be done.

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    $\begingroup$ For the last paragraph, it's a good exercise to take a look at our list of Greatest Hits and see which questions might not belong there. $\endgroup$ Feb 12, 2014 at 17:01

The benefits of the hot questions list are supposed to be for the sites that have these questions. Many of our users are quite capable of answering questions on Stack Overflow, Programmers, Seasoned Advice, Parenting and perhaps others. Getting these questions in front of a much larger and capable audience has proven to be beneficial across the network.

The key question here is whether the people arriving to the hot MO questions are:

  • Capable of answering them, and if not
  • Competent enough to vote on the usefulness and perceived quality of the question.

Think of something like Twitter, but the majority of users that read it know how a Stack Exchange site works, and the level of quality that we like to produce. It's a good thing to have, for the most part.

Once in a while, something gets on that list that is just rather sensational, and is up-voted quite out of proportion. A good example of this on Stack Overflow would be:

Cycles in family tree software

However, for every post that gets more votes than are probably warranted, 20 or more get a little more deserving attention and your community remains more easy to discover to newer users on the network that would make a great fit, but don't yet know that you exist. I'll concede that there are a limited number of research level mathematicians that might find the site in this manner, but they do exist. And, while not all are skilled enough to answer, a larger number are competent enough to know a darn good question when they see one.

I strongly recommend staying in the mix, despite the occasional (and known) downside. Math Overflow is growing, there is no doubt about that, and you're eventually going to reach a scale where you simply can't enjoy the benefits of being a relatively insular community any longer - it just won't be possible, and that's precisely what happened on Stack Overflow way before it reached its current growth.

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    $\begingroup$ I'm not sure I understand the last paragraph, in particular why the inevitability of growth means the hot questions list is a good idea for MO now. One interpretation is that as MO grows, it will prove impossible to keep well-meaning visitors who lack professional-level knowledge from playing a major role in the site, so we might as well accept this now. Is that what you mean? I hope this isn't true, since from my perspective it would negate the main purpose of MO, but even if it is true, I don't see why speeding up this change is an improvement. $\endgroup$
    – Henry Cohn
    Jan 3, 2014 at 15:59
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    $\begingroup$ I'm also skeptical regarding how many people on other sites can even recognize a good question for a research-level site like MO. That works at math.stackexchange, whose mission is to answer math questions at all levels. If lots of random people want to know the answer to a question there, then that proves it's a valuable question. On the other hand, at MO this undermines the whole meaning of voting for borderline-appropriate questions. If lots of regular users think the question is a good fit for MO, that means something, but if lots of random visitors like the question, that means nothing. $\endgroup$
    – Henry Cohn
    Jan 3, 2014 at 16:10
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    $\begingroup$ My interpretation of the last paragraph is that growth will inevitably lead to some loss in the "family atmosphere" of MO as it grows into an everyday tool for a much larger mathematical community. We're already struggling with this as we witness the gradual erosion of our "family values" of which this is only one facet. That sounds sad now but it's not a bad thing in the long run. I think one of the reasons the reasons MO is struggling with network interactions right now is that MO is slightly ahead of its peers in this evolutionary step. $\endgroup$ Jan 3, 2014 at 20:00
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    $\begingroup$ "if lots of random visitors like the question, that means nothing", says Henry. Or perhaps that means that the question is probably not a research-level question :-) $\endgroup$
    – Joël
    Jan 3, 2014 at 23:35
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    $\begingroup$ Thanks for sharing your point of view on this. A detail about this hot list I always found strange and even more in view of you first bullet point (and also the second slightly) is: the way the 'hotness' formula is designed (if it did not change recently) it is likely (at least on MO) that a question making this list will already have several well-receuved answers. It does not even seem that relevant to find additional people that might also answer this particular question. $\endgroup$
    – user9072
    Jan 3, 2014 at 23:48
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    $\begingroup$ @quid (and all) I'm going to talk to the guy that actually wrote the algorithm before I edit / comment further, I want to be sure that what I think is correct is actually correct before offering more focused advice on a premise that might be erroneous. Probably not going to be able to chat with him until early next week so please, stay tuned. I still assert that the benefits outweigh the headaches and will continue to do so, but I want just a little more confidence in my understanding of how it works before I respond to these (very well thought out) comments. $\endgroup$
    – Tim Post
    Jan 4, 2014 at 7:25
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    $\begingroup$ @TimPost: while you’re asking/answering these questions, I’d also be interested to know (if it can be disclosed at all) to what extent the hot-question list is universal. Do all Stackexchange users see the hot list, or do we each see one customised according to our account/activity profile? $\endgroup$ Jan 4, 2014 at 17:05
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    $\begingroup$ I think that it is very important to point out that in the many meta threads about the hot list, as far as I can tell no active member of MO has expressed a positive impression of the hot list. All the comments have been overwhelming negative... $\endgroup$ Jan 4, 2014 at 19:06
  • $\begingroup$ I must admit that I only looked at the hot list, when I was new to MO, but now I only follow newest questions or links to older ones. Maybe a "most referenced" list would be a better indication of the impact of a question on mathematical research and thus on how hot it actually is. $\endgroup$ Jan 6, 2014 at 16:58
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    $\begingroup$ @PeterLeFanuLumsdaine Everyone sees the same list, it's basically collected from all of the sites (or, well, sites where there's enough movement for a question to be considered interesting to the algorithm) and then it's cached. What I'm digging into is what makes it 'hot', which has come up before, but things changed since then. I'll get back to this as soon as I can, I promise, now curiosity is really eating at me! :) $\endgroup$
    – Tim Post
    Jan 6, 2014 at 18:21
  • $\begingroup$ Recently, Code Golf seems to be absolutely dominating the hot list anyway. I very rarely see a question from here. $\endgroup$
    – TRiG
    Jan 6, 2014 at 19:33
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    $\begingroup$ @TRiG They've got a particularly sensational tag with some somewhat .. amusing .. questions that folks tend to swarm, Twitter is to blame for half of that too. That can be safely considered to be a fluke, or at least soon will be able to be safely considered a fluke. $\endgroup$
    – Tim Post
    Jan 7, 2014 at 15:29
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    $\begingroup$ @TimPost does MO have the right to opt out of its questions being featured in the hot list, if the MO community really thinks the hot list does more harm than good? In my opinion, the hot list does nothing but undermine the purpose and high research-level academic quality of the site, distort what the local community considers to be the goal and scope of the site, brings in kibitzers that are not knowledgeable enough to decide what are good posts in accordance with MO standards, etc ... So I am interested in a clear answer if MO can opt out of this or not? Maybe that should be a new question.. $\endgroup$
    – Dilaton
    Jan 8, 2014 at 18:39
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    $\begingroup$ @vzn : MathOverflow is by its nature "insular" in the sense that it is intended for professional research mathematicians, which is a fairly small and distinctive community. I suspect that an attempt on the part of stackexchange to water down this emphasis or encourage other people to post here will result in MO leaving the stackexchange network (as per our operating agreement). $\endgroup$ Feb 11, 2014 at 23:07
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    $\begingroup$ @vzn : The operating agreement is here : docs.google.com/file/d/0B9bqmDNwzTjkLWxuR21FNHJWSXM/edit and the discussions that went into it can be found here tea.mathoverflow.net/discussion/1416/1/mathoverflow-20 $\endgroup$ Feb 11, 2014 at 23:22

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