Meta: too much talking, too little action, and a proposed solution

$\large\textbf{Firstly}$, if you haven't already noticed, we have decided to reinstate the homework close reason. Martin and I aren't great fans of the policy, but we also don't get the feeling that there is significant support for repealing it. So, at least for now, it is here to stay, and I promise I won't bring it up in the near future.

However, this also reveals a problem that we have had for a long time: we talk a lot on meta, but it is always difficult to reach a concrete conclusion. There are a few exceptions, such as the decision to blacklist the [tag:reaction] tag. Notice that here, there was an explicit trigger for action to be taken, namely "20 or more upvotes on Klaus's answer". But this is a rare case. Far too often we have open-ended questions, we discuss it, people write long answers, but at the end of the day nothing actually happens.

This really does frustrate me, and as a moderator, it is not an easy task to deal with. Generally, we have refrained from making sweeping decisions, and as a result we avoid a lot of the drama that some other sites might experience. However, it also means we don't really get anywhere, and can't really progress as a site. In terms of policy, we have gotten very stagnant. Even a tiny issue like whether hint-answers are acceptable has not gotten anywhere. It is a simple question, with only so many possible answers. Yet there has not been any resolution.

The perhaps-too-obvious solution is to set up a poll for every actionable proposal on meta. (Not every meta question is an actionable proposal, of course.) However, the issue with doing this right off the bat is that it tends to stifle discussion. The answers to this meta.SE post, for example, show that poll-style questions are generally frowned upon.

But simply leaving the discussion to be entirely open-ended has not served us well either. These represent two extremes of the spectrum: neither 100% discussion, nor 100% polling, are good solutions.

I'd like to find a new way of dealing with these proposals. Here is my suggestion.

• As is already the case, we will begin by having a period of discussion, where people may put forth their ideas and solutions as answers to the question.
• Not every answer has to propose a solution (some people may simply want to write their general thoughts on the matter), but if an answer is proposing a solution, it should explicitly identify what the solution is.
• As always, each proposed solution must have supporting rationale. Therefore, "discussion" can still take place.
• If you believe that no solution should be adopted, i.e. we should stay with status quo, then you must post an answer saying that, so that it can be voted on. If there is no answer to this effect, I would assume that nobody wants status quo.
• After 3 weeks, we will simply implement whichever solution has the highest number of upvotes. Downvotes will not be counted.
• As hBy2Py suggested, there will be a minimum threshold of upvotes needed for any action to be adopted. This threshold will vary with the issue - more important issues will need more votes.

Thoughts, alternative suggestions, etc. – please drop an answer. As always, we value community feedback very much and what you say does matter to us. Thank you in advance!

Conclusion, 11 Jul 17: we will do this going forward.

• I don't think the real problem is too much talking - that is required to form group norms around an issue. So, the issue is more how to move forward from a consensus group norm to a policy. I'm not particularly sure how that happened on other similar, but older, sites such Physics. Jul 7 '17 at 17:54
• @JonCuster Too much talking compared to the amount of action taken, though. ortho, ironically, I think we needed to implement the policy proposed by this post, on this post. :-P Jul 8 '17 at 19:36
• @JonCuster You're right; in hindsight, the title was really poorly phrased, and I most certainly don't want to clamp down on discussion.
– orthocresol Mod
Jul 9 '17 at 5:47
• After 3 weeks, we will simply implement whichever solution has the highest number of upvotes. Downvotes will not be counted. Why are downvotes not considered? IMO a downvote does imply that there's a person who has voted to not implement that idea. By this way, an answer with +10 -10 (net 0) would be implemented over a +4 -0 (net 4) post. That wouldn't be good. Jul 11 '17 at 5:49
• @PrittBalagopal The reasons are very simple: (1) counting downvotes means that we (can) end up counting a person's opinion multiple times. (2) downvotes aren't useful in figuring out what people want to do, only what people don't want to do. If people want a different solution, they should write an answer to that effect, and if the majority thinks that that's better, then they'll vote for it. || As an aside, you will notice that, in pretty much no election in this world, is there any equivalent to a downvote. People vote for the candidate they want, not for the candidate they don't want.
– orthocresol Mod
Jul 11 '17 at 6:11
• @orthocresol I see, what about: By this way, an answer with +10 -10 (net 0) would be implemented over a +4 -0 (net 4) post.? Jul 11 '17 at 6:14
• @PrittBalagopal Let's take the best case scenario, that 4 of the 10 people who downvoted answer A also did upvote answer B. Good for them. As for the 6 other downvoters, if they didn't upvote any answer, their vote is essentially spoilt. They were given an equal opportunity to vote and an equal opportunity to have their voices heard, but chose not to utilise it. So, too bad for them.
– orthocresol Mod
Jul 11 '17 at 6:16
• ... maybe a more debatable scenario is one where we have answer A with +10/-11, answer B with +4/0, answer C with +7/0. Then, it simply comes down to whether we require an absolute majority (50% or more vote share), or just a simple majority. My post indicates a simple majority would suffice, and I am inclined to stand by that, simply because: we will always review policies as we go along, and if it really turns out to be a lousy policy, then we can easily revert it. [This holds true regardless of how many people vote for it.]
– orthocresol Mod
Jul 11 '17 at 6:27
• "This threshold will vary with the issue - more important issues will need more votes." I think we cannot set the threshold beforehand. Look at the recent ebooks meta post for example. Voting's ending in 24hrs, but there's only been 17voters (+11 on mine, and +6 on yours) till now. And the views are at a meagre 270 times for that post. In all honestly, I would have set a threshold of at least 15 upvotes on the post, because, if we are to take an action representing a community as big as ours, 15 seems to be the bare minimum support we should have before proposing anything to external people. Apr 28 '18 at 15:00
• ...but as it turns out, what was an important issue in your or my opinion, isn't as important for many people out there. Hence, the point of view may differs, and the minimum threshold would differ too. || Also, "After 3 weeks," seems like you've changed this to just 12 days for that ebooks meta post. Not really a big deal, because the voting in the past five days has already been scarce, so there isn't any point in extending it for another week, but just wanted to let you know. Apr 28 '18 at 15:02
• To add more, in my opinion, for example, the ambigious definition and misapplication of the stereochemistry, isomers, geometrical-isomerism, chiralily, etc. tags on our main site is an important issue. I already have a draft written on it, but I wouldn't post it for some time now, because it'll probably be downvoted/ignored. That's exactly what has happened to some of my past requests about clarification on tags lately. Thus, what's important to me, is irrelevant to others. I am not saying that I am right in wanting to have a discussion on this, but just that priorities differ by person. Apr 28 '18 at 17:22

Most of us have noticed by now that chemistry.se is like a living and breathing organism, with constant change and also quite a few habits. As with anything that is living, it resists to sudden change and that is - in my opinion - why we are talking a lot, but leave a final decision open.
I personally find the meta process to reach consensus (which is actually more like a compromise) a good, if not only, approach to dealing with issues. In the past it suited us well enough for smaller changes, like merging tags, or clarifications and smaller changes about the scope of the questions and answers. In all these cases we adapted to what seemed the common opinion. For this process to work, it is necessary to have enough exposure and an open discussion for an extended period. The process really only works though, if everybody voices their opinion, by writing an answer (not just a comment) so that it also can be voted on, and the common opinion can actually be established.

I dislike the idea of polls completely. They undermine this process by guiding our users and inhibiting open discussions. I also do not like formalising how to go about policy changes, and making the meta-system more rigid than it actually needs to be. In the worst case scenario, we get caught up in level two meta discussions about how to change policies to change policies.

I am a big advocate of progressive change, making the site more inclusive and decisions transparent for everyone to follow. As a moderator I dislike making unilateral decisions with long reaching effects. It is no secret that I would like to change the homework policy to a more constructive pattern. My attempts so far have failed, maybe because I couldn't get my point across; maybe it is because I do not understand the wishes of the community. For now this is water down the bridge and at one point I need to let it go.

What I learned from this ordeal is that in most cases a meta post is not sufficiently equipped with an actual proposal, or the proposal itself might be hidden in too much text. In some cases we simply need to flush it out more precisely, or make clear what action(s) should be taken. I am very much on board with this part of Orthocresol's proposal. However, when there is a lack of answers, comments, and votes we will get stuck; the proposed plan will unfortunately not change that. It's also not a guaranteed solution. When there is too much disagreement, there will always be disagreement. The meta process is concerned with reconciling those differences and finding a common solution.
In the linked example about hint-answers, it is actually hard to see the common ground - I would say it's in favour, but I am not sure.
Sometimes you just have to move on for a while and bring it up fresh.

About the last part, I think it is common sense, that there should be a minimum number of votes applied. I don't think it is necessary to spell that out explicitly. I think it is a good idea to remind everyone to vote once they have read the proposal, but I don't think a trigger needs to be included in the actual post.
I know that this is analogous to my blacklist proposal of [reaction], but that case was a bit different. I would like to remind everyone that I first asked for opinions and thoughts on the matter, and only later (after receiving Klaus' answer) changed it to an actual request as there already seemed to be consensus. I included the trigger explicitly simply because it needed to be abundantly clear to the team what the community decision is.

Take this proposal as another example of how and why the meta process works. The post has earned a significant amount of up-votes, no down-votes, one addendum, one (not quite as well received) implementation proposal, (and now this,) but no objective opinion rejecting it or offering a counter proposal. Therefore I would consider the case closed and added as consensus.

There should be a minimum threshold of votes required before any action is taken, as with the blacklist.

• I actually put that exact line in and took it out. My original threshold was going to be 10 votes. However, I left it out because I kind of suspect that this would favour inaction (don't want anything to happen? Just don't vote). But I can certainly see the reasons for having a minimum.
– orthocresol Mod
Jul 3 '17 at 18:57
• Minimum could be selected per-issue. I think you have to have some sort of appreciable minimum, or else the legitimacy becomes suspect. Jul 3 '17 at 18:59
• Ok, yes. I can get behind that. Upon second thoughts, you're right, 4 vs 3 votes really doesn't make much sense. I'll edit it back in tomorrow.
– orthocresol Mod
Jul 3 '17 at 19:09
• I think it depends what the issue is - For non-controversial things that can easily be implemented and don't actively change the general workings of the site I think the f**k it and see approach works well and avoids endless debate until after we see if it flies or fails. Obviously the homework closing kind of issues are harder and some discussion is needed, though as ever I doubt concensus can be reached on things having a drastic shift Jul 3 '17 at 19:20

Some sort of recommendations for the formatting of "official action proposals" might be useful. Probably drawing up a rigid template would be overkill, but some sort of standardized suggestion would be good, to draw attention. For example, formatting as:

• Short title as major section heading (here, one leading #)
• Description of the action proposal in italics
• Longer description in regular text only if really, really needed

In particular, specific arguments supporting the proposed action should be posted as separate answers, so that community members can vote for the action they prefer without feeling like they're also being forced to support any particular rationale for that action.

A sample action proposal post:

Enable the color Extension

Upvote this answer to vote in favor of enabling the MathJax color extension site-wide.

A sample post for an opposing vote:

Do Not Enable the color Extension

Upvote this answer to vote against enabling the MathJax color extension site-wide.

Sample argument in favor:

Due to the fact that loading the color extension overwrites the default \color command with an incompatible behavior, and that any posts invoking \require{color} thus have the potential to accidentally 'vandalize' other posts using the default \color, loading the color extension by default will avoid these sorts of collisions.

As of this writing, there are 91 posts that use any of the default color commands (\color, \fcolor, or \colorbox). These posts would have to be updated to use the commands from the color extension. This would not be a trivial task, but neither is it prohibitive.

Sample argument against:

Only 91 posts out of the thousands on Chem.SE make use of text coloring. It's not worth (a) the additional overhead of loading another package or (b) the effort of converting those 91 posts to the right syntax.

• Your example would be much stronger if you used a concrete (contrived would be okay) situation. Jul 3 '17 at 21:49
• @jonsca Fair enough. I'll put some thought into a real-write. Jul 3 '17 at 22:33
• (not my downvote, by the way. I certainly get your point, it's just easier to get it across in other ways) Jul 3 '17 at 23:48
• @jonsca ... and done. Jul 4 '17 at 4:02
• "Frobnigate the Wofzig" is that a Chem.SE meme title or what? Never heard that before and it makes no sense to me @hBy2Py :-O Mar 16 '18 at 9:37
• @GaurangTandon Hahaha, no, it was a random thing I put together from nothing. It was supposed to be a sort of lorem ipsum/greeking, in something of a technobabble vein. Mar 16 '18 at 13:44
• @hBy2Py Lol I wonder how you even came up with that xD Mar 16 '18 at 13:47