I've been on this site for several years and I appreciate the site a lot but I don't like to post here anymore because no matter what I write I get some kind of sarcastic comment, or put-down, or someone edits my post (removing and adding tags, etc.). I realize that you all need to monitor the site, and that I ask stupid questions sometimes (usually I am thinking of something more and I just want a reliable resource for my little question) or ask weird questions. But, I don't see what is the harm in keeping these questions up and just not saying anything unless you have something helpful to say. I posted a question about Liouville's Theorem and I just wanted to make sure that I was thinking about it in the right way. But I got people editing my post (adding and removing tags) and a wikipedia link (why is that helpful?), so I removed the question. I think that this environment is not encouraging new ideas because I can't ask the questions I want to ask and I can't say things in the way that I want to say them for fear of all this negative feedback. I'm frustrated because I would just like a little help, not to be made fun of for asking. Any ideas? The sarcasm and patronizing tone of some of the comments really bothers me.
While it is an ongoing concern to keep the site on-topic and to maintain its standards, it is crucial for the community how people feel when they are asking or answering questions here -- if people enjoy using MathOverflow, the site will flourish, and what happens otherwise is obvious.
Given this, I think it can only be welcomed when people say how they feel about using MathOverflow -- even more when the enquiry comes not just from a pseudonymous new user_xyz, but is made by a long-term user of the site under their real name -- and this does not depend on the merits of the particular question the enquiry is about.
Furthermore, what you write may well shed a light on the reasons for the unfortunate but obvious strong bias towards male mathematicians among the regular users of MathOverflow.
Since you are using the site basically already since its beginnings, and as you are a former PhD student of Joel David Hamkins, I assume you know the community well. In particular I don't think that there is any need to explain to you how things are on this site. Rather I think you could provide a valuable service to the community if you further elaborate (say, in a discussion post on Meta) on what you would change in order to make using the site a more pleasant experience for yourself -- and in the same time presumably for many other people as well!
Erin, I'm sorry to hear you've found MO so negative in tone. There are a number of issues that have been brought up, both in the post and in comments, that might be useful to tease apart.
Let me start with re-tagging. I can see why you or anyone might resent others fiddling with their tags, and I do think it would be more collegial if others would (before eliminating a tag) ask first the reasons behind it. I'll qualify that slightly: if a noob comes in with a question about high-school level analytic geometry and applies the tag algebraic-geometry, then of course it means he doesn't know what that tag means to our community, and there doesn't seem to be a real need to discuss what he is thinking. But for someone with over 1000 points of reputation, and who holds a PhD in mathematics to boot, etc.: I'd say she should be asked first before removing a tag.
(Adding tags is probably less of an 'affront', although a polite comment such as "I took the liberty of adding such-and-such tag; hope you don't mind" would still be a nice collegial thing to do.)
That said, it's fine if someone who doesn't understand the point of a tag asks about it, and I don't agree tagging is (merely) subjective. Tags should be applied keeping in mind those users who filter by tag. Are those users likely to see the question as relevant and on-topic for that tag? If they don't, then they might feel their time has been wasted. (Let me put that more strongly: it is beyond dispute that many users are considerably annoyed by what they deem as improper tag choices -- why, there are two flags about precisely that in the moderator inbox, now as I speak.) So with that in mind, it should be part of one's routine to provide enough background so that hopefully all tags make sense to those concerned -- in particular, for a question ostensibly about transcendental number theory, some explanation for a tag like set-theory should be given.
This ties into the general issue of motivating and providing background for questions. I think a lot of users (not speaking particularly to you, Erin, but to people out there) might be a little uptight about this: MathOverflow seems like a hard-core or austere site, and people may feel they have to make their questions very concise and constrained (sometimes very formal as well), and they wind up not sharing why the question is actually important to them. So if for example
usually I am thinking of something more and I just want a reliable resource for my little question
then please consider instead sharing a bit of that "something more", if you can. If for example you intuit a connection between a question in transcendental number theory and issues related to set theory and forcing, then maybe say something about that if you can; people might find it interesting. (As an aside, Paul Cohen once said this: as a young student he was interested in number-theoretic identities like the Rogers-Ramanujan identity, and wanted to try a logical approach to them, by making an inductive analysis on the complexity of statements. "In a remarkable twist this crude idea was to resurface later in the method of "forcing" that I invented in my proof of the independence of the continuum hypothesis" -- More Mathematical People, page 50.)
In any event, I remember (now ex-)user quid pressing the importance of laying out background and motivation for MO questions, and I agree, and think it might help create more positive experiences at MO. The Help page also mentions this.
This enters into a more general question, which is sort of how I'd like the question of the OP recast, and which all of us should anyway ask ourselves:
How can I make sure my questions are positively received?
To begin with something simple: rendering formulas in TeX, as Andy Putman mentioned, is the norm and expectation in our Community. It's not a hard-and-fast rule by any means. But to state something obvious: if I take pains over the presentation of my question, giving it a professional appearance, then I transmit the idea that this question is important to me and I want others to take it seriously. Thus I agree it's a good idea to make use of the TeX software, routinely.
Relatedly, there is some expectation here that people, in addition to taking care over the presentation of the question, also exercise due diligence in researching the question a little beforehand (using Google, Wikipedia, etc.) -- and indications this has been done are usually well-received.
Speaking of this: if someone comments by giving a bare Wikipedia link, then in the first place let's grant the benefit of the doubt that he probably is trying to be helpful (and not snarky or sarcastic, unless he makes that plain). But in the second place it might mean he wonders why the answer wasn't found in Wikipedia, or why WP wasn't enough. Actually, not a few MO commentary discussions follow a pattern like this: a WP link is given, and the OP comes back and says, "Thanks. I did see that WP article, but I don't see how it quite answers my question, because...". And that would be a good response.
(On the other hand, I think it might help too, from the standpoint of netiquette, if commenters gave a little more than a bare Wikipedia link. There is every possibility that such comes across as a little curt or dismissive, or a slam dunk, or something like that -- even if you don't mean that. Imagine a friend asking the question; you might say something simple like "Might this be relevant? [link]" Or add a few words explaining the relevance.)
Erin also asks
I don't see what is the harm in keeping these questions up and just not saying anything unless you have something helpful to say
Well, the question of what we keep up runs into the perennial question of what the community considers 'on-topic' at MO, and as you know opinions vary widely. There will never be complete agreement about that. Looking at the number theory question in particular, I do think Mathematics StackExchange is the better choice. (And therefore the question should not be left up at MO -- one site per question, please.) Certainly it got a happier reception and result at Math.SE, and I'm glad you decided to post there. Something that worries me is that MO users may think Math.SE is a lesser site and are averse to posting there. I'd like them to reconsider. In theory there is usually a best SE site to post, and it's independent of where a user happens to feel most at home.
Looking at the beginning of your post, Erin: if it's really true that you feel put down by the responses every time you post a question, then I'm not sure what to say, except that (1) I'm concerned, and (2) I think you should consider making contact with the moderator team directly about this. Normally these things should be dealt with on a specific case-by-case basis, and not allowed to fester. Please also feel free to make use of the flag system if you think someone is being rude.
My greatest concern of all was touched upon in Stefan Kohl's answer: that your experience may have something to do with cultural attitudes and reactions towards women mathematicians. I take that possibility seriously. (We discussed this once at 'tea' [thanks to Carlo Beenakker for tracking this down], and Izabella Laba also has some thoughts on this at her blog.) As for myself, I can only imagine what it's like to be 'mansplained' at on a regular basis; let me close by saying I really hope this answer doesn't come across that way.
I have found that the mathoverflow community has become slightly more strict with time, downvoting and closing posts more aggressively if they are not in accordance to the general rules.
I guess that's because over time the number of messages have increased significantly (1 every 5 mns) and around half of them are not really about "research level" mathematics. As a result, people are quick to downvote messages that are not perfectly phrased or which are not 100% clear, in order to spend more time on the interesting questions. This of course favors questions from well-established users over casual/beginner users.
So you can say that the community has become more "collé-monté", and there are a lot of early questions a bit vague, broad or of a philosophical nature, some of them gathering a lot of reputation, that would be discarded nowadays. I think that if you adhere strictly to the rules, you should see the negativity go away.
I didn't downvote any of your messages, and I hope you won't feel umconfortable if I make a comment on one of your questions entitled "Is there a Hotel California of set-theoretic geology?". The California Hotel reference can only cater to a specific geographic and demographic audience on mathoverflow. Keep in mind that the majority of the users here do not live in the US and unfortunately humor is a very cultural trait. Also I can't understand the body of the question, you don't give enough details. That's fine for me, don't modify anything, but that may explain the downvotes.
So yes, I agree, the community has become less friendly than in the early days.
It looks like many of the specific issues raised by the OP have been empathetically and constructively addressed, which is good. But I wanted to add that some of the OP's concerns may be related to structural weaknesses in the stack exchange platform itself which emerge as a site scales up. There are three factors in play:
- Positive and negative feedback are asymmetric. There are many ways to provide feedback which can at least be perceived as critical: down vote, critical comments, modify the question, vote to close, and flag for moderators all come to mind. But the only way to provide positive feedback is to up vote (or leave "Nice question!" as a comment, which not too many people do).
- Privileges do not scale with the age or size of the community. More and more people get 2k rep, and all of them can edit questions and answers.
- Questions and answers with a high number of up votes are emphasized by the system and thus attract a lot of attention.
You can probably see how these three observations interact to make the experiences that the OP describes more common and more severe. Good questions attract more attention, more attention increases the expected number of people who see the question and don't like something about it, and those people are more likely than they used to be to have powerful ways to express their criticism.
Stack Overflow today embodies these dynamics taken to their extreme. A great many of the highest voted (and frankly most useful) questions on that site are closed as off topic, and the reason is that when thousands of highly empowered users encounter any conceivable question it is almost inevitable that five of them will eventually vote to close, and there is no offsetting "vote to keep open" option. This question on Stack Overflow meta could be a cautionary tale for Math Overflow, though I think we can all agree that things aren't anywhere near as bad here as it was even two years ago there. (They are not helped by the fact that people have professional incentives to gain reputation on Stack Overflow.)
I've learned to build all of this into my prior expectations when using the stack exchange network in general - when I post a question which gets edited or attracts some critical feedback I take it in part as a positive sign that the question was interesting enough to attract attention. And actually this is often in the spirit that the edits or critical remarks were intended: while I don't edit questions very often, when I do so it is usually because I think the question is interesting and I want to maximize the chances it will receive good answers. This works for me, but I'm not sure it is the basis for a good long term strategy to grow and maintain the community.