12

OK so the title is obviously way too serious, but hear me out.

I've joined Phil.SE about 2 years ago, and had a whole lot of fun learning philosophy through it, with some very well-educated and fun to talk to people. Even though, from the very beginning I saw that many of the questions being asked on the site are either non-philosophical, way too broad, very uneducated or those pesky "logical fallacies".

At first I've really been able to sort those questions out, and enjoy the good questions and discussions I've had here. But after a while it seemed like the one-question-user that asks "What is God" or "What is electricity" trend had increased significantly, to the point where now I have to actively search, quite excruciatingly, for decent questions. Granted, I haven't been very active this past year, so I can't complain too much; but I think I'm voicing the thoughts of many of us.

I know for a fact that I'm not the only one that feels that way (is Philosophy SE being trolled?), and I know that the site never had a good activity rating, and it is quite obvious that SE isn't the best fit for philosophy questions, to the point where one of our well-known moderators just quit exactly for that reason.

But I've never seen an actual discussion over the future of this site (at least not since its Beta days). And I think that it might be as good as time as ever to open such discussion. Some key points I have in mind:

  • Is there a future for philosophy in the SE format?

  • Can we utilize the SE format any different than we have so far?

  • Is the "moderator" feature well-utilized for our site?

  • Do we want/can we afford to demand higher-quality questions? (the size/quality issue)

I really hope that you guys are interested in opening such discussion as much as I am. Please comment/answer with your thoughts, I'd love to hear what our mods think.

If any of you think that we should indeed make this discussion (imo preferably in a chat room, but we can obviously decide later), please let us all know by up-voting this question.

I would really hate seeing this site continuing the way that it is currently, because again as Keelan said long before he quit - this site seem to stagnate.

  • 3
    This site gets a lot of poor questions - we just have to keep flagging and closing them. That's how the quality stays high. – curiousdannii Oct 5 at 1:24
  • @curiousdannii that's one of the many problems I think there are in the site; additionally there aren't many medium-to-high quality posts, and the overall activity is lacking. Furthermore, I wish to discuss the issue with the SE format that doesn't fit our field of of interest. – Yechiam Weiss Oct 5 at 16:22
  • I will write some answers over the course of the the coming days. Several answers since they express different aspects and ideas for which I would like to see the resonance in the community. – Philip Klöcking Oct 6 at 10:16
  • Could you elaborate the point about whether the mod feature was well-utilized? – Philip Klöcking Oct 6 at 10:18
  • i'm probably an awful user of the site, but my two cents is that the only solution, at this stage when the rules are clear etc., is reliable voting habits by all those that can and do vote. but i've tried to make those points, repeatedly, on this meta, to not avail and perhaps even offence – another_name Oct 6 at 14:57
  • The tag system should be reformed in some way. A question tagged “theology” can be like “What is God” or it can be a question from someone with a PhD in philosophy of religion. I just don’t know how… – wolf-revo-cats Oct 6 at 21:06
  • @wolf-revo-cats what do you suggest though? "theology-beginner" and "theology-expert"? – Yechiam Weiss Oct 7 at 15:46
  • @YechiamWeiss yeah, I know. It is not compatible with the rest of the stackexchange format. It would be abusing the tag system if we would introduce tags like “beginner”, “intermediate”, “advanced”. – wolf-revo-cats Oct 7 at 17:36
  • @wolf-revo-cats don't get me wrong, I don't have any issue with abusing the tag system, I just don't see how this solves the issue (and do you believe people won't abuse this solution? Even mistakenly, they could put "beginner" in what could be "intermediate" and vice versa). – Yechiam Weiss Oct 7 at 17:58
  • 1
    The greatest problem with this site is the ambivalence between the narrow and blind dogmatism of analytic training, naive of philosophy in any larger sense, and the background of the Western thinking in toto. Either one should let everything in, and make every effort to habilitate all questions, making them legible and fitting, or explicitly declare the analytic syllabus the limit of the forum and strictly exclude all else in order to narrow and thus make utterly strong the select material. – Joseph Lutz Oct 14 at 20:29
  • I got the same feeling of progressive decline in quality over the years. The recent moderator quittings are unrelated, I think, they have to do with some corporate missteps of SE, Inc., although they obviously do not help. The reason seems to be that many good questioners and answerers exhausted the site's potential for engaging them and left, the same dynamic happened on hsm. To some extent this is natural wear and tear, but ultimately we have a problem with attracting and keeping professionals on board the way Math Overflow does. The quality of the site reflects the quality of its user base. – Conifold Nov 1 at 9:29
  • @Conifold regarding the Keelan: "... In my view, The voting system is often no longer able to distinguish good content, and the quality of this site, as well as other sites in the humanities like Biblical Hermeneutics". Regarding the user base-- what will you suggest? Do you think we need to advertise this site to attract new professional users? And why do you think we are at that point where many left but not so many new ones come? – Yechiam Weiss Nov 1 at 11:32
  • The moderation has been getting stricter, and I'd like it do be even more so, higher thresholds could be placed on voting eligibility, but that can only decrease the number of bad posts, not increase the number of good ones. In the early days there was more concerted effort to attract quality users, I think, through promotion on professional sites. I have not seen it lately, and not sure how effective it would be now. There is a finite pool of professionals open to participation on such platforms, and it might have been tapped out, while those disaffected get even more so as the quality slides – Conifold Nov 1 at 12:42
  • @Conifold the major difference between now and the early days is that earlier the site was in its beta phase, and attracting new users was a must. Since then the site should've had a natural grow, and that's something we (or at least I) rarely see nowadays, as the new users are often one-post users. That's at least my perspective on this subject. – Yechiam Weiss Nov 1 at 12:51
  • Also @PhilipKlöcking I think it can be helpful if you'd post some statistics of the site, in relation to the issue Conifold raised. – Yechiam Weiss Nov 1 at 12:52
6

A general problem with philosophy.SE indeed is that humanities work kind of differently compared to, say, mathematics or programming.

The main problem is that the kind of questions which arise in mathematics or programming only arise to mathematicians (or students thereof) or programmers respectively. All other questions which theoretically do count to the field as such are so trivial that they are either textbook/google standard or covered within months of the site running.

Philosophy is different. Not only does virtually everyone have philosophical questions, but the answers are often not absolute. There is no "this does work, this does not".

Thus, if we really take the model of StackOverflow seriously, we should keep two things in mind:

Firstly, being very lenient regarding accessibility would be like allowing questions like "Which language should I learn, and how to write "Hello world" in it?" on StackOverflow or "How do I multiply two multi-digit numbers?" on MathOverflow. Over and over again. If you think about it, this just does not happen. StackExchange explicitly asks for effort before one asks a question, i.e. 90% or so new questions would have to be closed since they obviously just popped into the OP's mind. They lack the effort and will to answer the question themselves.

Secondly, a "good" or "correct" answer in humanities means an answer that critically discusses relevant sources, both historical and contemporary, not just repeats or summarises one or two. Obviously, we cannot write an academic essay every time we want to answer a question. But while this is not possible regarding the sheer number of words necessary, this should still be the standard to aspire to, e.g. by reducing the number of sources and summarising less detailed. If that alone doesn't do the trick, the question may be too broad and/or missing context which specifies how a good answer should look like. Honestly, I do not see how a single source can ever be authoritative in philosophy.

  • I'll address each answer separately. Here I'd like to suggest a more extreme approach. What if we, as the Phil.SE community, would not take the SO/SE model seriously? What if we alter/bend the rules to fit our needs, instead of us trying awkwardly to fit into rules that were not, and would never in their current form, ultizied to the humanities. I won't go into specifics here, but what if we allowed a more open-discussion approach to the Q&A format we have? By the way, to this approach I hinted when I implied the mod feature being under-utilized. – Yechiam Weiss Oct 6 at 17:51
  • 1
    On math.stackexchange.com questions can be about the most basic stuff up to research level. Yet a question tagged “algebraic-topology” is virtually always asked by someone who has a bit of mathematical education. A question tagged “descartes” on the other hand, can be asked by someone who just watched the movie Ghost in the Shell 2 or it may be from a Descartes scholar. In short: On philosophy.SE the tags do not give any information about the education and competence of the person who asks. You cannot filter out the basic questions on philosophy.SE by using tags. – wolf-revo-cats Oct 6 at 20:55
  • I'm not sure multiple sources needs to be a requirement of a good answer. An answer that succinctly summarises one source's take on a questions can still be a very good question. The problem with the SE format is that it requires a single 'correct' answer and leaves no space for discussion. I'd rather 4 answers explaining 4 different view points well, than one answer explaining all of them badly! – JeffUK Oct 7 at 10:51
  • 1
    @JeffUK I am not talking about summarising badly, nor would I preclude single-source answers categorically. This answer is meant to solicit discussion, so it is somewhat extreme by design. Regarding the "single correct answer", my take would be that there's nothing wrong with multiple high-voted answers. It is the OPs opinion which is reflected in the tick, not necessarily the quality of the answer – Philip Klöcking Oct 7 at 11:00
  • @PhilipKlöcking agreed on that last point. I've rarely "accepted" an answer, not because I didn't prefer one to the other, but because I didn't think it was my place to decide the "correct" answer. That is, by the way, another point of my "extreme approach" to deliberately "misuse" the SE format. – Yechiam Weiss Oct 7 at 15:50
5

I think we could realise the StackExchange model (mind, "Experts answer your questions") more rigorously. The real question ever since I joined this site is: Do we want to? I remember several tries back when @virmaior had been moderator. A pretty good example for a site with a working, hard policy is Sceptics.SE.

There are several options available, of which I will offer only some:

  • More rigorous flagging and closing of questions and deletion of answers which to not meet the mark
  • Active deletion of closed questions so that only the answerable (and quality) questions remain visible (mind, users can edit their deleted questions and flag for undeletion just as well as reopening, it is mainly a difference between "the community can reopen" (five votes) and "only mods can undelete", while the former rarely ever happens) - I would use standard template comments in these cases.
  • In order not to have a pure "history of philosophy" site, the answers would have to discuss contemporary sources, i.e. meet the standards of undergraduate essays. To be honest, few answers here do, mine included.
  • Less discussion in comments, i.e. rigorous flagging and deletion of comments that go beyond the post they are found under.
  • Compulsory site (and maybe google) search to identify duplicates. Many questions are upvoted and answered although they have been answered before, sometimes multiple times.

The problem is: This needs both very explicit and transparent standards and marks and an active community supporting this less lenient approach. Yes, this amounts to effort.You cannot have the cake and eat it. It is the community's job to shape this site, not the moderators', who can only handle the few cases that the community does not have the means to deal with. Yes, it will probably meet shouts of "censorship" etc., but both the rules and single cases can be openly discussed in meta, no rule nor decision is set in stone (a fact many users tend to forget).

  • And in the more standardized approach - I agree that we can make this site work under the current format. And I agree that what you suggest are the steps we need to take in order to make it work. And I would absolutely accept it if the majority wants to stick to this format, and I'll simply hope that we can make this work. But: a) I think we need to think about how we can get the community to be as active as we'd want it to be, supporting this approach. Granted, I currently don't have any suggestions. b) I still think that we would bump into a wall again if we'd stick to this format. – Yechiam Weiss Oct 6 at 17:58
  • 1
    I'm not sure I agree with making all answer directly reference contemporary academic sources. A lot of questions can be adequately dealt with by lay level resources, and even Wikipedia. I'd settle for getting rid of the questions that just ask "is X good/true?" This site should require questions like that to be scoped to a particular philosophical school of framework, for example "is X good according to Utilitarianism?" – curiousdannii Oct 7 at 0:58
  • FWIW this is the approach followed by Christianity and it works great there. – curiousdannii Oct 7 at 0:59
  • that's already happening, i believe @curiousdannii on the other hand, i think it'd be helpful if people upvote on answers which use better, more academic, sources. this happens to an extent already, i'm sure – another_name Oct 7 at 17:47
  • all your suggestions are -ve. are we under the -- i would assume false -- opinion that serious students of philosophy don't want appreciation (etc,) on the sites that they might use? it's not earth shattering advice: but vote! – another_name Oct 7 at 18:00
3

One thing that hasn't been mentioned is the review queues. That's where the community can exercise its moderating power in a more systematic way. Currently, the review queues are dominated by 2-3 users that, judging by the review history, tend to be quite lenient. For instance, they voted to leave open 38 out of 50 questions that have been nominated for closure (in some cases voting to leave open questions that are so obviously off-topic, such as the one on whether security cameras will be able to capture miracles).

So I would encourage more people to participate in reviewing, and remember that being more strict with low-quality content should generally result in more high-quality content.

3

Serious matters are raised here. I offer a few observations.

  1. The question about security cameras and miracles plainly has no place but how representative is it ? What proportion of our questions is anything like as inappropriate as this ?

  2. I am glad that the slew of questions about fallacies has stopped. It was at its fullest about a year ago. Adequate material on the fallacies queried could have been found on Wiki in most cases.

  3. Some of the questions - indeed, quite a few - appear to relate to technical logical matters only tenuously connected with philosophy. I have come to dread seeing the word 'Fitch'.

  4. I do not think the 'oldness' of a question or answer is an index to its usefulness. I have found intellectual stimulation in both. It is not as if philosophical material moves rapidly out of date as scientific material does.

  5. The site is educational in a broad way. By which I mean that leaving an unfit question on site and pointing out, as many of our members do, what is wrong with it can be helpful to the person who asked it and to others on the wider web who are only starting to find their way in philosophy. This doesn't mean the question should not be closed, only that a quick-kill response isn't always appropriate.

  6. If there is an implicit suggestion (nothing direct perhaps but a conversational implicature) that the site should be closed, I can only record my view that if it goes - vanished plain from screen one day - then along with it goes a substantial body of philosophical knowledge and reflection available not only to members but to users of the Internet. I couldn't support such a loss. I am glad to have Yechiam's assurance that closure is the last thing in his mind. I am not sure about the minds of others.

  • I'll start with a general statement: I, in no way whatsoever, am suggesting that we close this forum. I would absolutely hate seeing it happen. The title of the question is merely attractively bold, but as you can see in the content: I simply want I to discuss the future of the site. Secondly, I'll address 1-3 by saying that I just finished reviewing about 20 questions, and the majority of them I suggested to close as off-topic. And I generally agree about this site being educational, but there is a limit to how lenient we can be in response to the quality of the questions. – Yechiam Weiss Oct 8 at 14:44
  • 1
    Reassurance most welcome, as acknowledged in revised text above. Best - Geofrey – Geoffrey Thomas Oct 8 at 15:33
1

I think what is happening is a twofold phenomenon which is common for online communities:

Firstly, the user base changes and so does the content. This is always perceived as some kind of decline. In the case of database-like sites like this or, say, bullshido, there also is a threshold where the new content which is of high quality and not repetitive is becoming less because that which lies within the interests and expertise of the userbase is mostly covered quite well so that there is some stagnation.

Secondly, a working model is exploited to the point of losing the fun/usefulness for generating profit (user contracts or traffic). This is especially problematic in the case of StackExchange, since the model can only endure a certain amount of mass compatibility.

Thus, I would say that it is a combination of common change and the corresponding loss of quality. The statistics say that the mean activity and traffic of this site is quite constant over the last two and a half years, if not growing.

1

There's, I think, two questions ,here

  • why does the site quality seem to be dropping
  • what can anyone do about it.

Wrt to the first question, I agree with Philip's "twofold" answer, especially.

Wrt to the latter, it's just as obvious: use your voting privileges (carefully) and provide questions and answers of good quality. What 'quality' is, should be obvious to any high rep users.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .