This is shaping up to be a bit more of a rant than I meant it, but this is a serious problem, and I'm growing increasingly frustrated. I feel this is something we need to explore.

A good community is an ongoing dialogue. Right now, our dialog is poisoning interactions and pushing people away. I think it's time for us to set aside discussions of question and answer quality, of sourcing and quoting, of what counts as a good question or a good answer, of what should and shouldn't be downvoted, of what "literature" means and what counts, and especially of how we avoid being "Literature 1.0", for a moment. For a long moment.

Why? Because we're bleeding out our orifices. People are leaving, and others who might nominally want to participate don't feel like they can. Our active user count has been on a steady, rhythmic decline since the day we left private beta, to an extent that's downright alarming. This is symptomatic of a problem that needs to be addressed. And honestly, I don't think much else matters until it does. If we don't have a community, all other discussion is moot.

I can't honestly recall the last positive interaction I've had on the site. Nearly everything I've done here has been frustrating, anxiety-inducing, and unrewarding, especially recently. The site feels impossible to appease. Where normally, on other sites, there's at least a minimal assumption of good faith, and an allowance for "I understand what you mean," here, everything is subject to incessant deep scrutiny.

It's like we've all decided to discard the idea of building a healthy, welcoming, happy community, and replaced it with a competition to out-literature each other. It's like we've started looking for reasons to be critical of posts, and of each other. And in that space, we've lost track of the primary and most critical foundation of a healthy community: ensuring each other walk away from each interaction feeling like it was a good one, and a worthwhile one.

I've seen people delete good questions because of harsh, nitpicking feedback. I've been tempted to delete high-voted answers of mine because I couldn't stop getting notifications about small details and choices of words that, really, people understood, even if they weren't as clear as they could have been.

I've seen people find themselves unable to ask questions because they can't figure out how to ask them in a way that lives up to the standards we've set. Even people who are skilled and competent at asking questions have this problem. I've had this problem.

I've seen hundreds of inexplicable and unexplained downvotes - I've easily received a couple dozen myself - and hundreds more that came with hostile and unwelcoming explanations. I've almost never seen positive, helpful, constructive feedback.

I've read thousands of our comments, and found almost no warm, friendly feedback. Little to no "welcome to the community, this is an interesting question" comments exist on this site. Instead, people make demands in comments, then ignore the post, never to touch it again, if someone bothers to make a good-faith attempt to meet them.

I realize I don't have many sources for these things. Unfortunately, I'm not willing to source most of my examples. I also realize these things happen on any site - but they happen here far, far more than I've seen elsewhere. In my experience, this is one of the most unapproachable sites I've seen on Stack Exchange.

So I've been bombarded with examples, lately. They've come out in dialogue, and I suspect they'll continue to come out the longer we talk about it.

And, truth be told, if I were a regular user of the site, and not a moderator, I would have left ages ago. My long hiatus was because, on some emotional level, I was seeing that this wasn't really a site I wanted to participate in. But it should be. I break bookshelves. I am the target audience. And as a moderator, that means it's time to get my hands dirty. And as a community, that means it's time to get our hands dirty.

I don't have a good answer here. I'm not sure what we should do. I know that it's happening - I see it happening, as it has been for a very long time. And besides, this needs to be discussed as a community.

So, here we go. Here are the questions I think we need to answer.

Questions for Pondering:

  • When was the last strictly positive, encouraging experience you had on Literature?
  • Has anyone given you feedback that has solely made you frustrated?
    • How often does that happen?
  • Have you gotten inexplicable or unexplained downvotes? Do you feel like you have the tools you need to correct their anonymous concerns?
  • Have you gotten comments that lay out problems you don't feel like you have a way to meaningfully address?
  • Do you like the people on the site? If so, is there someone you like based on your interactions with them here specifically? If not, why not?
    • Do they still use the site?
  • Is there anyone you'd like to see post more on the site? Why don't they?
  • When you downvote a post, what, specifically, do you tend to disagree with about that post? How major is that issue? (Can you understand what the answer is getting at?)

Questions to Answer:

  • If you've left the site, or are reluctant to post here, why? What holds you back?
  • What can we do to make more interactions positive, friendly, and encouraging?
  • What are the possible consequences of loosening up on our stringency and strictness?
  • Feel free to answer with... anything. Really. Anything you feel is relevant to exploring our toxicity problem.

I jotted my thoughts down. Now I'm curious to hear yours.

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    Thank you for posting this. I've been meaning to write up something myself about trying to be more friendly in comments, and I guess now those thoughts will become an answer rather than a question. I do, however, find it ironic that you posted this just the day after we met the target for active users on Area 51, moving from "Okay" to "Excellent" :-) – Rand al'Thor Oct 5 '17 at 5:52
  • @Randal'Thor You're right, that's a little ironic ;) – user80 Oct 5 '17 at 6:06
  • @yannis makes a good point. By my reading, the wording of the question suggests that finger-pointing (in a Nice way) might be acceptable here, if it's necessary to comment usefully on the issues being raised. But then, I'm not the one who would need to deal with flags and interpersonal issues which might arise from that :-) Zyera - as a mod, can you clarify to what extent it's OK to cite specific users or comments which could be perceived as unwelcoming? – Rand al'Thor Oct 5 '17 at 19:58
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    @Rand Sure. Some level of actual on-site referencing is really helpful for discussion, but I can't ultimately give much more than guidance. That being said, I'd broad-strokes guideline: make sure your post isn't targeting someone if you're going to use their comment as a concrete example; it's about the post, not the person; use no more examples than are necessary to convey your meaning; assume whoever's comments you take will read it, and make it constructive, not flat criticism. Just generally make sure you're being kind, necessary, and true, with good intent, and things will work out. – user80 Oct 5 '17 at 21:16
  • @Zyera - i tried to answer. Please let me know if this is kinda what you were looking for. – DVK Oct 6 '17 at 3:28
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    I wonder if it'd be helpful to ask people to mention which SE they're more used to - it might help to understand their viewpoint. I can definitely spot the ELU perspective in Spagirl's answer, for instance. – Rand al'Thor Oct 6 '17 at 6:04
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    This comment left me frustrated, and ensured that I probably won't post answers that involve speculation (which, TBH most of my answers do). – muru Oct 6 '17 at 11:29
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    I think that unexplained downvotes is particularly problematic, especially unexplained downvotes for reasons other than the ones that the community has approved. – EJoshuaS - Reinstate Monica Oct 6 '17 at 16:38
  • @yannis For clarification, by "reasons other than the ones that the community has approved" I mean "reasons that the broader community wouldn't consider a problem with the question quality." – EJoshuaS - Reinstate Monica Oct 6 '17 at 20:12
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    @yannis It wasn't - I'm merely suggesting that some people downvote for bad reasons and that they shouldn't do that. – EJoshuaS - Reinstate Monica Oct 6 '17 at 20:29
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    @muru I share your frustration with that comment, and have upvoted and repeatedly defended that answer of yours. Please remember that only a single user downvoted or criticised the answer, and the community at large doesn't seem to agree with their assessment. I hope it won't stop you from posting more answers like that one! – Rand al'Thor Oct 6 '17 at 22:33
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    Example: a question about the author's intended message in a particular book got this comment: This question confuses author's intentions with a story's meaning. Asking about author's intentions in this way is not a valid academic lens to understand literature. More importantly, these types of questions lead to very uninteresting answers. The OP (who's no longer active here) pointed out that asking about an author's intentions is perfectly legitimate, and they aren't looking for an "academic lens to understand literature", but nevertheless got an answer they and others found interesting. – Rand al'Thor Oct 10 '17 at 11:36
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    One of the main problems with Lit.SE in my personal opinion, is literature.meta.stackexchange.com/questions/300/… - and I am not satisfied with the answers given there. – Buffer Over Read Oct 15 '17 at 15:56
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    I created a question to include explanations of common downvote reasons. I hope that people will contribute to it. – EJoshuaS - Reinstate Monica Oct 17 '17 at 16:43
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    @Hamlet I hope we can figure out a solution, sadly I do not currently have one myself. – Buffer Over Read Nov 6 '17 at 0:44

11 Answers 11


If you've left the site, or are reluctant to post here, why? What holds you back?

I have kind of "left" the site, inasmuch as I don't visit often anymore. Not quite by design, more a natural outcome of a couple of factors.

Why? It's a combination of 5 things, and frankly I doubt you (as moderator, or as a site/community) can easily address any of them, sorry:

  1. Level of effort required to produce good answers.

    The site's subject matter topic requires one to either be a super deep expert (which I'm not - i'm a somewhat informed enthusiast); or a BIG level of effort to participate on a level I prefer to participate at.

    I'm simply finding that I'm unwilling to put in enough effort (partially for reasons in #3) unless the specific question arises on a topic I'm enthusiastic about (e.g. Russian SciFi, or SFF in general) AND someone points the question out to me off-site, often P2P mode (see #5 below for reasons for that).

  2. I'm only interested in a small portion of the site's content.

    My level of enthusiasm is reserved for relatively narrow band of material. Whereas - by the nature of the site's topic - the site has way too broad of a scope for me to be enthusiastic in more than a small sliver of topics/questions.

    This is a combination of a problem with me as an individual user AND the site as a going concern. Problem is, I suspect many if not most users are more like myself than wide-band-interest enthusiasts or pros, so the site's nature is important factor to the user engagement.

    Think of it as equivalent of being a programmer that only programs in a very rare esoteric language (that has may be 5 users and 20 questions on StackOverflow), only 2 of which are experts. I doubt that you would be able to engage such a user much on SO. Whereas, on Literature, MANY users are in that same boat.

    This problem is severely exacerbated by problem #5 below.

  3. I'm personally generally heavily dispirited about SE overall.

    This has virtually nothing to do with Literature.SE site - Stack's owner and (separately but equally) CM team made me sour on the whole of SE, for a variety of reasons, some related to recent stuff, some years in the making.

    CMs can give you better stats if you're interested on whether this is just me being a special snowflake, or merely one a wide slice who simply aren't as vocal as myself, and simply silently disengage across the whole network. Given the lack of changes over time, I suspect the disengagement isn't sufficiently large to make anyone give a shrivelfig.

    As noted in point #1, participation in this site requires heavier level of engagement since good answers here need a lot of effort put in. I don't recall any answers on this site I gave that were "easy As". As such, the level of de-motivation overall exceeds what is required to make me willing to put in the effort.

  4. I'm generally against Postmodernism. I detest the whole "Death of an Author" approach to literary criticism and the gleeful disparagement of authorial authority (pun intended). As such, a large chunk of more "professional" - and thus, interesting - content doesn't engage me as much as it would someone else; as most of the modern litcrit seems to be postmodernist. This affects me as a site content's reader, less than answerer, of course.

    This is more of a problem with me as a user coupled with specifics of site's professional topic. As such, not much that can be done here except write me off even more :)

  5. The site consensus on tagging (specifically, lack of ability to search for "russian literature".

    Gilles can elaborate on this far better; basically i'm largely of similar views to him as of when meta discussed tagging a couple months ago but he's far more eloquent :).

    This wouldn't be a major problem in and out of itself, BUT, due to specifics of the tagging consensus, it combines with reason #2 above (site has too many topics, and i'm only interested in narrow set) to make the site very hard for me to use to find interesting questions. In short, to find questions about Russian Literature or SFF, I literally have to scan EVERY new question on the site to see if i'm interested in that question's book/author. That's a level of extra effort the lazy/demotivated user in me is not willing to engage in.

What can we do to make more interactions positive, friendly, and encouraging?

I am not sure they need to be more positive from my personal past experience. But seriously, how's this different from any other SE sites? Ideally, all interactions should be more constructive and fitting both the letter AND ideally the spirit of "be nice". Also, people should post well researched and ideally cited answers. And there should be world peace. And I want a llama.

What are the possible consequences of loosening up on our stringency and strictness?

Your site fills up with useless bad quality content to the extent neither professionals NOR high level enthusiasts would be willing to dig for nuggets of gold among piles of not-gold. The site at best turns into useless but populous pile of junk; or more likely, follows the original Literature site into the land where the shadows lie.

When was the last strictly positive, encouraging experience you had on Literature?

Monthly topic #1. Lucky for me, the very first one was the very exact book that I love and know well and am one of the few site experts in (yet, surprisingly, there were still enough enthusiasts to ask interesting questions AND vote on the topic).

Has anyone given you feedback that has solely made you frustrated?

Not really. There may have been an odd post that got more downvotes or less upvotes than I hoped for, but - for the limited amount of my participation - I was never bummed out or frustrated by any feedback. I can't say I noticed any towards other users that I would see as upsetting, either.

Have you gotten inexplicable or unexplained downvotes? Do you feel like you have the tools you need to correct their anonymous concerns?

I guess I did, but none stuck in my mind to remember now. I would say though, that however many there were, it was far LESS unexplained and seemingly undeserved downvotes here than on many other sites, including very active and populous ones.

Do you like the people on the site? If so, is there someone you like based on your interactions with them here specifically? If not, why not?

I don't dislike anyone as a person on the site from site itself (caveat there's one user I don't see eye to eye on a personal level from other SE interactions, but amusingly I don't have any issues and even agree with them on many issues on Literature). There's at least a couple of users i got to know on literature that I feel i "like". There's one user whose subject matter views I dislike immensely but that's not personal.

Is there anyone you'd like to see post more on the site? Why don't they?

There's at least one specific user that I can definitely apply that to (disclaimer: I have no idea how much he posts nowadays as I wasn't active; and if not, no idea why other than tagging issues as per #5 in the first part of my answer). This is mostly based on my prior long term awareness of his deep knowledge of literature, especially speculative fiction. I may have had my disagreements with the user personally elsewhere on SE but I always found their content highly interesting and knowledge very deep.

When you downvote a post, what, specifically, do you tend to disagree with about that post? How major is that issue? (Can you understand what the answer is getting at?)

Sometimes, lack of citations. The post sounds like a personal opinion.

Sometimes, just poor quality.

Sometimes, rarer, deep disagreement with the answer.

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    Re #5 - did you miss the change in consensus on language tags? We now have a russian-literature tag which is to be used on all questions about any work of literature originally written in Russian, and ditto for all other non-English languages. The russian-literature tag is actually #10 on the whole site, way ahead of the other language tags with a whopping 41 questions. – Rand al'Thor Oct 6 '17 at 5:24
  • @rand yes I most certainly missed that. Thank you for letting me know. I will try it out – DVK Oct 6 '17 at 10:19
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    Point 4 is very interesting and I'm not sure it's so unrelated to the primary problem the question tries to adress. It might indirectly be due to the site's encouraged answers being less diverse than the site wishes (or thinks). I have observed them cheerfully encouraging the "death of the author", especially compared to other related sites, which isn't in itself a bad idea. But this is of course two-fold and a balance between approaches might get lost. Point being, I'm not so sure point 4 is entirely to blame on you, rather than part of the bigger problem this question tries to adress. – Cahir Mawr Dyffryn æp Ceallach Oct 6 '17 at 18:02

I've stopped participating very much on this site, and it's a real shame, because I'm a bookish nerd. I've been reading Vonnegut recently, I've had a few questions, and I was like, well, maybe I should post them here?

And then I realized, no, I don't really want to.

I feel like I've gotten downvoted on most of my questions and answers, some with no explanation, some with an explanation that I honestly think is a little harsh for what's going on. Yes, I get you guys want citations for everything and to be a rigorous literature site, but there's some points at which you go way too far, and as its turning out, you're doing so at cost to your members.

Perhaps it'd be interesting to compare this site's atmosphere to that of another beta site I've been on with low questions per day - Computer Science Educators. It's an incredibly friendly atmosphere there - every new answer gets a "welcome to the site!" comment (and sometimes two =P) and things are voted on - I think I've used up my daily vote allowance more times there than on any other site, just because that's the culture there.

Here, I don't vote often. Here, there aren't "welcome to the site!" comments, there are "Here's what all you did wrong, you newbie!" comments. And really, this is kind of ridiculous, because this isn't Stack Overflow, where you're dealing with a stream of (sorry, SO) absolute junk with a few gems in the mud. This is Literature.SE, where you get only a few questions a day.

It's too much work here to satisfy everyone's comments when really I'm just trying to ask a fairly obvious question, or answer with a clear point.

And yeah, I'm kind of ranting now, and yeah, I probably don't have any right too, but you know what? I think I'd take the comments a heck of a lot better if people actually, you know, were welcoming and upvoted as well as downvoted. The comments feel so much worse because I fix it and the downvote isn't even removed.

An interesting note: in the chatroom the following was said:

[username redacted] is pretty hard to please - he downvotes a lot of answers - but he's always ready to provide feedback. And he's not just being grumpy and criticising everything: he does praise some answers (and it feels really good when he does).

Just food for thought.

Maybe I'll try this site out again; maybe since this question is being asked and upvoted, things are improving. (Edit: since I posted this answer, I thought I'd ask one of my questions and see what happened.)

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    Oh, hey, glad to see you're still at least lurking on the site! You were the first person I thought of when this meta post raised the issue of users being chased away by unfriendly feedback. – Rand al'Thor Oct 9 '17 at 21:09
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    For what it's worth, it's often hard to post upvoted questions on many sites. I have a LOT of experience asking SE questions, and yet I still get questions that people dislike and downvote lots. Sometimes, (again, given my experience, unexpectedly) a question I personally consider a junk throwaway gets 20 upvotes; and sometimes, one I deeply thought about and put effort in gets 4 downvotes. It's just how the game is. – DVK Nov 8 '17 at 1:01

How to be more friendly in comments - redux

(This doesn't directly address any of the specific questions you've asked, but I want to put it front and centre: if there's just one thing people take away from my answer, let it be this.)

When you leave a comment on someone's question or answer, bear in mind the preferred goal of doing so: usually, you want the person to stay on the site and make more high-quality posts, so you should provide useful feedback (even if it's critical) but also make the user feel welcome. It's helpful to remind ourselves on occasion that being friendly doesn't have to be at odds with being right - it's possible to tell someone what's wrong with their answer while still being positive and welcoming.

From a strictly utilitarian point of view, this doesn't matter: the important thing is to provide appropriate feedback, not what spin you put on it. But we're dealing with people here, and they're less likely to stay on the site if they feel like they're being constantly carped at than if they feel like we're genuinely trying to help them improve their posts. Consider the difference between the following:

  • This post is bad and I've downvoted it because XYZ.

  • Welcome to [site]! You're clearly enthusiastic about this topic and have put effort into this post, but it could be improved by XYZ.

This is not to say "don't be critical" - sometimes you have to be critical to maintain quality standards - but when you are, try to be nice about it. If you like, think of it in terms of Emrakul Zyera's three gates: criticising someone's post might be true and necessary, but if possible it should also be kind.

The best advice I can offer on how to do this (as someone who's prided myself for years on my niceness to new users, and refused to succumb to the all-too-common urge to get fed up and lapse into apathy and cynicism) is to focus on the positives. If you're just making a minor criticism of an otherwise good answer, say, "Nice answer, but ..." If you can't honestly say the answer is nice, but the answerer has clearly put effort into it, say, "You're clearly keen and enthusiastic about the subject, but ..." If you can find anything positive to say, say it. This even applies to answers which need to be deleted: e.g. if someone posts a comment as an answer, you can compliment them on an interesting comment while pointing to the Tour and flagging their answer.

Naturally, this is especially important for new users and those who aren't invested in the site. If you leave a harshly worded comment on one of my answers, I won't really care; if you do it to a newbie, they might never come back. (Also, it doesn't apply to spammers and purely disruptive posts, but that's obvious and is the exception to "If you can find anything positive to say" above.)

OK, that's got the most important thing out of the way; now to address some of your specific points.

Our active user count has been on a steady, rhythmic decline since the day we left private beta, to an extent that's downright alarming.

I disagree (though I'll be interested if you can provide any statistics to support this). We've picked up plenty of new, useful, and enthusiastic active users since leaving private beta, and I don't think more users have left than is normal for an SE site at this stage of its life. (On SFF and Puzzling, the other sites I'm most active on, I don't think any private beta users are still highly active - in SFF's case, maybe not even any public beta users.)

Has anyone given you feedback that has solely made you frustrated? How often does that happen?

Occasionally, but I tend to shrug it off. Again, I'm not likely to be chased off this site - the people to worry about are other users, especially new ones, and how they react to such feedback.

Ironically, the only question I've deleted due to frustrating feedback which didn't make sense to me was "How many times did Sherlock Holmes commit a crime?", where that feedback was coming from you :-) (This isn't an attempt at finger-pointing, I hasten to add: your comments are almost always really nice and thoughtful. But it might help you to look at things from the opposite side, as the giver rather than receiver or viewer of frustrating feedback.)

Have you gotten inexplicable or unexplained downvotes? Do you feel like you have the tools you need to correct their anonymous concerns?

Most of the time when I get downvoted, either it's explained directly in comments, or if I don't understand why, I'll ask in chat and someone (not necessarily the downvoter) will help me to understand what might be wrong with the post.

Have you gotten comments that lay out problems you don't feel like you have a way to meaningfully address?

See above.

Do you like the people on the site? If so, is there someone you like based on your interactions with them here specifically? If not, why not? Do they still use the site?

Yes. I actually feel like we have a fairly healthy little community here.

Is there anyone you'd like to see post more on the site? Why don't they?

Yes. Some people have become less active due to real-life concerns; some people tend to participate mostly in comments, despite my encouragement to flesh them out into answers; ... and, yes, some people apparently don't want to post here because they don't feel like their contributions would be 'literary' enough :-/

When you downvote a post, what, specifically, do you tend to disagree with about that post? How major is that issue? (Can you understand what the answer is getting at?)

Around 11% of my total votes are downvotes, which I think is fairly low. I might have various different reasons for downvoting, but a common one for answers is being poorly sourced, e.g. citing only Wikipedia or making completely unsupported claims.

What can we do to make more interactions positive, friendly, and encouraging?

See above. I think more positivity in comments/feedback could really help the atmosphere.

What are the possible consequences of loosening up on our stringency and strictness?

Worst case scenario: Lit.1; lowering quality standards naturally leads to a site flooded with crap. Many of the criticisms I've seen here are (IMO) reasonably valid, just could be expressed more friendlily.

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Okay, this is sad. I don't have access to the stats but I've been waiting literally years for this site to exist and I'm super happy that it does. I check the site pretty much every day, post questions as they arise and post answers where I feel I can offer useful content. It's depressing to hear that people are leaving.

Before I go any further, if anyone thinks for any reason that any of my participations here are in some way contributing toward this decline I want people to point fingers at me. If I'm rude, or posting empty answers to "play the SE game" then I want to hear about it and improve, because I want the site to thrive and grow far more than I care about my petty faux-intellectualism.

I suspect there are a couple of other people who probably ought to have fingers pointed at them too, which we'll keep quiet about for now but which, if I'm right, we may have to address to solve this problem.

A lot of this stems, I think, from the lack of a crystal clear remit - something that others have mentioned. Personally I don't have a strong feeling that we ought to nail down a particular type of content as "desirable" - the site should work as "books". But some people do feel differently, and make their opinions known with anonymous downvotes or snarky comments. I have no magic wand for this. As online communities grow so do their identities, but it seems this one is failing to grow due to this problem and I can't suggest a solution, which is frustrating.

Personally, I don't get this thing about a lack of substance in some answers. I've said this before but it bears repeating: a user once dismissed one of my answers as "sparknotes" but that seems to me to be a compliment. SE is not an essay site. Concise summaries in the vein of revision notes are exactly what we should be looking for IMO. If you want to go deeper, go somewhere where long-form essays are the norm.

I've been on the recieving end of it a couple of times and it's dispiriting. But I've been an SE user for a long time and I know that you'll never please everyone and that you take the rough with the smooth. There are some users who I've identified as being problematic in my view and I simply don't answer their questions because I know it's a waste of time. New users won't know that. Again, I don't know what you do about this as it seems a side effect of the way SE sites are built to allow anonymous negativity. If I had my way I'd stop all of SE from downvoting stuff without also leaving a comment but that's not realistic and likely wouldn't work anyway.

To the questions, I've answered those which are relevant to my experience:

When was the last strictly positive, encouraging experience you had on Literature?

Yesterday, when I got some interested comments in response to a question. They weren't all "strictly positive" although one was, but all were encouraging in the sense that they added something useful to the exchange. There is still plenty of good content here by good people and I desperately want to keep that alive.

Has anyone given you feedback that has solely made you frustrated?

Yes. As I said, I've learned to avoid engaging with certain users.

What can we do to make more interactions positive, friendly, and encouraging?

Be polite and respectful, especially of the effort put in to answers. Don't downvote - and I think this is really important - unless it's clearly a bad question in terms of clarity or lack of effort or misinformation. Absolutely don't downvote or even comment just because you feel a question isn't a good fit for the site. If that concerns you, take to meta and we'll discuss it.

What are the possible consequences of loosening up on our stringency and strictness?

The worst possibility is that we end up like "Books.SE" in an endless loop of story ID questions. I see little risk of that happening since the core of the active user base right now is interested in other, wider applications of the literature tag. We may get a lot of poor quality answers: fine, don't upvote them or, on occasion (if they're clearly wrong) downvote. Some of them may get accepted: fine, that's a built in flaw with the way SE runs. Live with it. I say we relax the strictness and see if we can live with the consequences. It can't be any worse than driving people away with rudeness.

Other than that, I have no constructive suggestions: I wish I did. I considered applying to be a mod myself but lack of time and lack of ideas were key in my decision not to.

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    "It's depressing to hear that people are leaving." It's worth noting that the data contradicts the claim that people are leaving. (People did leave after the private beta, but that happens for every Stack Exchange site, and our numbers have mostly been stable since, which also is normal--typically it takes a year or more for a site to be established and for activity to increase). This obviously doesn't invalidate people's experiences of this being an unfriendly or toxic community. People may or may not believe it, but I find aspects of this community to be very unfriendly and/or toxic as well. – user111 Oct 10 '17 at 16:16
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    Agreed with @Hamlet. My gut feeling is that we haven't been losing users to any abnormal degree, and we've certainly been gainIng valuable users to offset our losses. – Rand al'Thor Oct 11 '17 at 14:40

Can I say that I’m really happy to see this issue being raised up front and centre. I’ve been told a couple of times by mods that I should raise such concerns here if I had them, but I’ll be honest that in itself felt like a challenge rather than a solution.

Part of my difficulty has been that whenever I’ve challenged mods or others on what seemed unnecessary negativity, I’ve had it pointed out to me that essentially ‘thems the rules’ and I can like them or lump them. And I can see their point, so I’ve backed off a lot from the Stack, because if its rules don’t suit me, that isn’t the Stack’s problem...

But I also think the stack is doomed the way it’s going. It might be the rules that discussion belongs in chat not comments, but enforcing that so rigorously that there is no sign of life on a question seems counter productive. On that note it might be helpful for mods to consider that the link between individual posts and chat is pretty clunky in the mobile app... is there even a way to get directly to chat from a question? If mods could more often move the discussion to chat and post a link, chat might get used more, and there would be s breadcrumb trail to the community!

(I’m aware this is a bit rambling, it’s well past my bedtime, so apologies for any stream-of-consciousness style)

@zyera’s question talks about building community, yet I’ve been told that the question isn’t for the people here now, but for later searchers. That seemed to leave no space or incentive for people to keep coming back to try and write and help others write good answers. Kind of a monastic view of contributors.

I originally wrote a screed here about a particular Q that had been the first that made me feel unwelcome, but as the moderator comments which caused that have since been deleted, there isn’t really much gained by it. However, I will say that the rapid deletion of comments once they are deemed to have served their purpose contributes to the Stack having a relatively sterile flavour, there’s no hint to anyone who stops by later that someone might have had a thought that didn’t make an answer, but might have been someone else’s stepping stone to one. And of course that doesn’t apply universally, but if you’ve seen discussion be wiped away on one Q, you can’t tell if another Q has been similarly swept clean or never attracted any attention.

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There are several questions on the site I find very interesting. Only a handful of them has been sufficiently answered. Most received very low quality - but positively scored - answers. The rest remain unanswered. I do not feel confident any questions I might have will get answered here.

For this, I partly blame bad luck. The subset of the site I find myself most comfortable in is dominated by people who are excellent at playing the Stack Exchange game. Lots of very wordy, but ultimately substanceless answers - to get the cheap points, I presume. There is the occasional gem, but I'm afraid it's not enough.

Then, there are the endless Meta discussions. Software Engineering, a site that dramatically changed its scope (and name) more than once, had about 8 Meta questions for every 100 main site questions during its first year. Politics, a site with a much more controversial and difficult to define subject matter had about 1 Meta questions for every 10 main site questions during its first year. Literature, with more than 2 Meta questions for every 10 main site questions, is comparable to Politics. This, very simply put, is absurd.

Honestly, if anything, I should be advocating for stricter quality control. Better answers is what I want from this site. However, I'm afraid this community's definition of quality control does not go beyond pedantry for pedantry's sake. Oh well, I guess I'll limit my participation to spending a few minutes every now and then hunting for that occasional gem.

All that said, I never intended to spend too much time here anyway.

PS. It's probably not the best time to open this particular can of worms, but I feel I must say that I'm not entirely happy with how some of my flags were handled.

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    It's not really fair to compare the meta activity of a 7-year-old or 4-year-old site to one only 9 months old. The point of the beta period is to figure out how the site works and that requires beta participation, most often within the first year. – Catija Oct 7 '17 at 3:14
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    I'm curious how Lit's meta stats compare to the stats for e.g. Software Engineering or Politics when they were as old as Lit is now. Is that info easy to find? – Rand al'Thor Oct 7 '17 at 7:40
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    @Randal'Thor If you're curious, for Politics, the graph looks like this (query, manually correlated) (month # on x-axis, ratio on y). It holds around a ratio of 2:10 meta to main through the fifth month of the site's existence, then starts to taper off. We're still not unreasonably far off from that, though - Politics settled around 1:10, or slightly under. Our current numbers do plot a path that looks similar to Politics. – user80 Oct 7 '17 at 9:46
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    I don't think that the discussion about the flags belongs here, but I'd be interested in hearing what you have to say in a different meta post. – Mithical Oct 7 '17 at 18:03
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    @Zyera Thanks for doing the Data.SE legwork :-) Thinking about it some more, I can't see why having such an active meta is being portrayed as a bad thing. If we have many questions on meta and few on main, surely it suggests that we have an engaged active community who have lots to discuss about the site, even if they aren't particularly prolific in posting questions. – Rand al'Thor Oct 7 '17 at 18:31
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    @Randal'Thor To a certain extent, you're right - meta activity signals an engaged meta community, and that's healthy. To a certain extent, I also see yannis' point. I think it's possibly informed by the ol' Meta Means Murder philosophy SE held for a long time, fueled by concerns that too much meta-level discussion poisons a site. While I think the threshold is much higher than anticipated for that to happen, whether we've reached that point is an interesting question to ponder. – user80 Oct 7 '17 at 18:35
  • @Randal'Thor You are correct that the numbers alone don't tell the full story. Numbers never do. However, the fact that this site's abnormally high Meta activity and culture of pedantry and rule-lawyering lessens the main site experience has been highlighted multiple times, by several users. Most recently, in spagirl's answer. I did not think it would be useful to pile on. I feel that most who have been around for a while should know why I find the numbers worrying, and not simply indicative of an "engaged active community". – user8 Oct 10 '17 at 7:26

Have you gotten inexplicable or unexplained downvotes? Do you feel like you have the tools you need to correct their anonymous concerns?

Truthfully, that's been one of my major frustrations with the site lately. There are a few people that will explain their concerns if they think that there's a problem with a post, but unfortunately there are a lot of other people who won't (even for seemingly high-quality questions and answers), so I'm often left scratching my head as to why someone might consider the post low quality. I may be overreacting, but downvoting without explanation on a post that doesn't have obvious quality problems seems like anonymous sniping at best.

I have a few posts that have 8 - 10 upvotes and 1 - 2 downvotes (none of which were explained). In that circumstance, clearly the majority of readers believe that the post is high quality, which makes the downvotes seem stranger.

It seems like questions on certain topics (e.g. song lyrics) tend to be particularly likely to draw downvotes for whatever reason, even though the community consensus is that these questions are on topic.

This point is more controversial, but I strongly believe that people should align their upvotes and downvotes with community-defined quality standards (rather than merely basing their voting on their personal opinion of what constitutes a good question). It's not constructive to downvote questions that meet community-defined question quality standards merely because the voter happens to dislike it for some reason. For example, "I think that this question should be off topic" is not a legitimate reason to downvote (you should take it up on Meta if you think that); "the community has defined this question to be off-topic" is a legitimate reason to downvote.

For the record, I do realize that my previous point is completely unenforceable given the fact that upvotes and downvotes are anonymous by design, and I'm not suggesting that they de-anonymize voting, I just think that people should try to align their voting with community quality standards.

Alternatively, there are things we could do as a community to make it easier to explain votes and to come to a consensus about "good" and "bad" reasons to vote in certain ways. For example, Stack Overflow has the rather convenient http://idownvotedbecau.se/, which features a list of reasons that people commonly downvotes and links to use in comments explaining the reasoning. For example, http://idownvotedbecau.se/noresearch/ links to an article entitled "I downvoted because research must be done to ask a good question," which briefly explains what the problem is, why people consider the problem downvote-worthy, and how to fix the problem.

Research is an important first step in solving problems

Solving problems can be hard work. When we have exhausted our own knowledge, it’s often tempting to simply ask someone else to solve the problem for us. It is very common to find the question we have is one many people have already experienced, and many of these people have already asked about it and have received correct answers in response. Because of the vast amount of information on the internet and Stack Overflow, it often takes just a simple search or two to find them.

Why this is a problem

We have asked a question, but we have not stated what research we have done. This does not mean that we haven’t researched our problem, just that evidence of that research is lacking. People reading our question may not understand, if they know a little research would have found the solution, why we apparently haven’t tried. They may suggest things we have already tried to do through our research, or they may just consider us to be lazy and move on. We risk downvotes and lose opportunities to get correct answers for our question.

Why this is worth a downvote

The first part of the text which appears when hovering over the downvote button is “[t]his question does not show research effort”. The first section on the How to Ask page is headed with “Search, and research”. That’s how important research is, not only to Stack Overflow, but to solving problems in general. We owe it to ourselves, and to those who volunteer to help us, to do our best to find solutions to our problems before asking for help.

What to do next

If we have not yet researched our problem, and no one has answered our question, we should delete it. We should keep a link to the question, as we may be returning to improve it. We should then start researching our problem, keeping track of what we searched for, what we found, and why it didn’t help. It’s not necessary for us to link to every site or question looked at, but we should at least reference similar questions, and let people know why the answers did not help**....**

This is slightly abbreviated for brevity, but the point is: this is a constructive use of a downvote. It doesn't take all that much effort to link to it in the comments, so it's easy for reviewers to use, and it clearly explains what the problem is and how to fix it.

Just as important, if you look at links to the downvote reasons they have, you'll note that they have one thing in common: There's broad community consensus that those things actually make a post low quality. For example, there's broad community consensus that you ought to do research prior to posting, that you should have at least tried to solve the problem on your own, and that you should adequately describe your problem.

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    @yannis The entire point of this whole meta post is to highlight the issue of unfriendliness in this site, including/especially in downvoting practices. Many of the OP's bullet points are about unexplained or frustrating downvotes. Just saying "ignore the downvotes" and "[p]eople are free to vote for whatever reason they want" doesn't really help people who're feeling a real sense of unwelcomeness from multiple downvotes. – Rand al'Thor Oct 10 '17 at 7:43
  • The reason why stack overflow has a consensus about downvotes is because they've been around for a long enough time to come to a consensus. We are six months in on a site about a topic that has never been done successfully. It's going to take a while before any sort of consensus is reached. – user111 Oct 10 '17 at 9:21
  • For the record, I've upvoted most of your questions and think they are good questions. I think you do a good job researching before you ask questions (you find things that confuse you and ask questions about that). I hope you continue to ask questions. – user111 Oct 10 '17 at 9:44
  • @Hamlet Thanks, I appreciate it. – EJoshuaS - Reinstate Monica Oct 10 '17 at 13:10
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    @yannis I strongly disagree that there are no bad reasons to downvote. Yeah, technically we have no way to prevent people from voting badly given that voting is anonymous, but I also think that people should vote in accordance with community-defined standards as much as possible. Personally, I only downvote if I have a concrete reason to believe that a post doesn't meet community quality standards. Also, if I'm tempted to downvote a highly upvoted question, the fact that many other people find the question high-quality should give me pause at a minimum. – EJoshuaS - Reinstate Monica Oct 10 '17 at 13:19
  • Obviously I'm not saying "don't downvote highly upvoted questions," I'm just saying that there are, in fact, bad reasons to downvote. – EJoshuaS - Reinstate Monica Oct 10 '17 at 13:20
  • I do think the "this question does not show any research effort; it is unclear or not useful" probably isn't the best guideline for this site. Research in the context of literature is different from research in the context of another topic. I don't think people who, say, didn't do a Google search before asking should have their questions downvoted. – user111 Oct 10 '17 at 13:42

Having had a little more opportunity to consider, I'd like to take a punt at the 'Questions to Answer' and if it's okay I'll do it as a separate question to avoid too much of a wall of text.

Needless to say, these are my personal reactions to things, I don't expect them to be universally true, and I understand that I may have misunderstood people along the way.

• If you've left the site, or are reluctant to post here, why? What holds you back?

I put myself on hiatus for a while, after some instances where I was advised I was making wrong calls as to what should be comments and what should be answers. As I’d been posting without problem on ELU for a year and here for several months, I decided to step back to see if I could get a better handle on things.

One thing which makes me feel uncertain about posting is a sense that some of the rules are almost unknowable. If I’m told that a comment/suggestion conflicts with something that’s been previously agreed in Meta, as I have been, what counts as agreed in Meta?

On that occasion I was linked to an answer in Meta as support for a poster’s assertion. So my question is, when does an answer in Meta become part of the rule-set? Or have I come away from that encounter under a misapprehension?

There are 262 questions on Meta Lit, and many more answers, more yet on Meta SE. I genuinely don’t know how a good citizen keeps up to date.

A run of self-answered questions also put me off. I understand that Lit needs to build up a solid base of quality questions and answers, and that the rules of the house perfectly allow for such. I also ‘get’ that the asker may have accepted or up-voted answers other than their own. But if the questions read more like a set-up for a prepared answer than like someone genuinely seeking help, it feels… bogus. I don’t feel moved to put effort into answering a question if I think the author already has an answer ready to roll. So, the site gets a solid Q&A, but risks people being deterred from engaging.

• What can we do to make more interactions positive, friendly, and encouraging?

It’s been commented more than once that the culture in ELU is ‘different’, but I’ve not found it noticeably different from the other Stacks I frequent eg Writers or Great Outdoors.

It might be interesting to hear more about what variety exists in cultures across SE. I know a mod once commented to someone I’d been exchanging comments with, how people from that poster’s [named] SE always seemed to really understand how SE worked, which seemed to suggest they felt this Stack was afflicted with too many people who don’t get it.

I really don’t think that that anyone is intentionally flouting rules, be it about staying on topic, commenting and answering appropriately or ‘being nice’, but perhaps we could all do with thinking twice about how someone else may receive our well intentioned utterances and actions.

For my own part, when I use comments to seek clarification of the question, I should be clearer that I’m asking because I think the question is interesting and I might want/be able to answer it, rather than because I’m trying to pick holes in it.

We should also make a little allowance for the fact that although we conduct our business here in English, for many posters it isn’t a first language and we may be missing each other’s nuance.

• What are the possible consequences of loosening up on our stringency and strictness?

The sky will fall!

Well, the stability of the sky might depend on how much we loosened up and how uniformly any changed strategy was applied.

On the plus side, we might manage to get a little discussion going on some of our backlog of unanswered questions, a few comments and a link to chat might be all it needs on some Qs to help people pool recollections about possible story IDs or find somewhere to lodge the idea that they can’t quite form an answer round but which might be the missing piece in someone else’s answer.

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    "perhaps we could all do with thinking twice about how someone else may receive our well intentioned utterances and actions" - yes, this. – Rand al'Thor Oct 6 '17 at 20:57

I read a spoiler in the feed and when I discussed it here in Meta, I was down-voted, so I stopped visiting.

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Since the question is talking about how to be more welcoming, I thought I would take a look at how this site welcomes new members in the past few days since this question was asked.

It's been a mixed bag tbh.


  1. I thought that the community did a good job handling the question Understanding this sex scene in A Song of Ice and Fire. It got a good answer, and while the question initially had flaws, those flaws were mostly edited out (i.e. no work on the part of the OP).
  2. The community was polite when they closed Anybody got any good books?, although it's easy to be polite because 99% of us agree that recommendation questions are off-topic. It's harder to be polite, and being polite doesn't necessarily make these discussions pleasant, when the community disagrees about what represents good content on the site.


  1. The question Is there a relationship between Edward IV and Sleepy Hollow received a welcoming comment, but it also received two unexplained downvotes and now has a score of negative one. None of the downvoters made any attempt to explain how the question could be improved, nor did they try to improve the question themselves through editing. This is the definition of being unwelcoming in my mind

  2. A new community member posted an answer to What is the distinction between "literary fiction" vs. "popular fiction"?. They then attempted to edit the answer from an anonymous account (their first post was also anonymous). The edit was rejected because it wasn't possible to verify that the second account was the same as the first. But it doesn't really matter if the edit was from someone else; the edit made the points the answer was making clearer, elaborated on certain points in the answer, and generally made the answer better. Why reject an edit like that, other than for the purpose of making life more difficult for people to improve the site?

    The new community member then posted a second answer with the edits. So far, no one has taken the time to incorporate the second answer into the first. The answer did receive a comment with complicated instructions about how to merge an account, which is OK, but instead of focusing on a technical issue why not take the time to capture the work and writing that new member nicely did for us?

  3. The question Did Twain know more about the Mono Indians than Alfred Kroeber did? wasn't technically posted by a new member, but it's on track to receive a tumbleweed badge: it has no votes and no comments. Statistically, ignoring people is the best way to turn them away from the site.

Given that I was able to find three examples in a two day period on a site that doesn't have that much activity relative to other Stacks, I doubt this is a minor problem.

I don't know, if you want to be a welcoming community, welcoming new members seems like the best way to start. It's simple, and it sets the foundation for everything else.

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    Interesting on the point about welcoming new users, it’s something I’ve certainly done elsewhere, but not here. Possibly because I don’t see myself as a part of a community here, so it would seem presumptuous to seek to speak on their behalf. – Spagirl Oct 7 '17 at 11:45
  • @Spagirl I'm taking a hiatus -- haven't left any comments or really done anything on the main site in the past few days, my activity on meta will be falling off as well. (I only posted this cause I was reading the site for the past few days, and it was interesting to see how things were being handled without me). I know that my comments have created friction with you and made you feel unwelcome. I don't know if I'm the only person who has made you feel unwelcome, but now that I'm taking a break, perhaps you might feel more comfortable stepping up your participation. – user111 Oct 7 '17 at 17:10
  • We certainly need to do a better job welcoming new users, and that's seems to be a community thing, not a me thing (as hopefully this answer shows). I do think a lot of the problems on this site aren't just about tone--the toxic argument about whether questions about music are on- or off- topic would have been toxic no matter how people's points were worded, for example. But I think welcoming users is an simple, achievable goal, and could hopefully be a foundation for other changes in the culture as well (some of the toxic downvoting I've seen on questions, for example). – user111 Oct 7 '17 at 17:13
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    One of my big problems with the whole music discussion was the number of unexplained downvotes. It seemed very unconstructive given the fact that we're still defining what constitutes "good" music questions. It seems like if someone has an opinion on the topic they should either comment or post on Meta; downvoting seems like anonymous sniping, but I may be overreacting. – EJoshuaS - Reinstate Monica Oct 7 '17 at 17:43
  • I disagree with your point that "it doesn't really matter if the edit was from someone else" - Stack Exchange rules clearly dictate that edits by someone other than the poster shouldn't deviate from the intent of the post. – EJoshuaS - Reinstate Monica Oct 7 '17 at 17:56
  • @EJoshuaS I mean, does the edit contradict the intent of the post? The edit elaborated on and clarified the points made in the posts. If the edit contradicted the post in any way--say it changed the conclusion--then we would have a problem. But it doesn't. I think it's 99% likely that the edit came from the person writing the post, but in the 1% chance that it didn't, it still seems like a constructive edit. – user111 Oct 7 '17 at 18:02
  • @Spagirl I know that feeling very well; it always feels odd when I start welcoming new users to a site where I'm not particularly active or long-standing myself. But I keep on doing it anyway, because it seems to me that if you're eligible to access the First Posts and Late Answers review queue, then you're eligible to welcome new users to the site. Thinking about it that way might help you feel less "presumptuous" about it :-) – Rand al'Thor Oct 7 '17 at 18:27
  • @Hamlet I really do think this has been more about, as it were, ‘cultural’ differences between stacks for the most part, and I hope that nothing I’ve said is contributing to your staying away. I am very aware that you put a huge amount of work into Lit, and I’ve benefited greatly from much of it. I hope your hiatus will be brief. Be well. – Spagirl Oct 7 '17 at 20:47
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    @Spagirl oh, thanks! – user111 Oct 7 '17 at 21:18
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    I put my hand up to downvoting the Sleepy Hollow question. I didn't explain why at the time because there was no way i could condense it to a comment and I believe the question is not salvageable by editing. I think it was a poorly conceived question which basically invited members to invest their time on a whimsy of the author's, based on no more than a loose play on words. I have now answered the thing to try and demonstrate its shortcomings and both explained and removed my downvote. – Spagirl Oct 11 '17 at 13:01

[![Number of visitors and active users each week since the private beta][1]][1]

[![Number of people who posted at least once every week since the private beta.][2]][2]

[![Number of new users every week since the private beta.][3]][3]

[![Number of upvotes and downvotes every week since the private beta.][4]][4]

[![Number of question votes and answer votes each week since the private beta.][5]][5]

Let me know if you would like more numbers.

For reference, that period during September correspond to a period when this site was engaged in a toxic scope debate about questions.

Typically, a beta Stack Exchange site experiences explosive growth during the private beta (when everyone is trying out the site), a period of stagnation after the private beta, where the hard work of establishing the site's role/purpose takes place, and then, if a site is successful, a period of slow/steady growth. If you want some Stack Exchange sites to compare us to, you can view some graphs/numbers on this meta post. Other than the dip in September, our numbers look pretty normal.

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  • From the analytics page: "analytics data is intended for moderators only; please don't share the specifics of this data in public" - I've edited out the images and submitted a redaction request. This page is the only one containing public information. – user80 Oct 10 '17 at 17:42
  • @Zyera oh, I'm sorry about that. At the same time, is it harmful to share this information? I certainly think it's helpful information to have. – user111 Oct 10 '17 at 17:52
  • Essentially the tldr of the data is that our numbers are very similar to any other private beta, and that we weren't really hemorrhaging users. The one exception to this was a period in september that also saw a huge spike in the number of downvotes and a huge decrease in the number of upvotes. This period in september corresponded with a particularly toxic debate about whether music questions were off-topic or on-topic. – user111 Oct 10 '17 at 18:16
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    @Zyera Moderator analytics can be shared, with discretion (see this Meta.SE post), if there's a benefit to the community. Most of the data shared here isn't private anyway and could be reconstructed from SEDE (albeit more tediously!), so there's no real issue with sharing if it's helpful. See also: public site views on Quantcast and various SEDE queries like this. – Aurora0001 Oct 10 '17 at 20:05
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    I have to downvote this answer now, because without the images it's almost useless. Please ping me if you and @Zyera sort out the privacy issue and reinstate the images, following the CM advice linked by Aurora, so that I can reverse my vote. – Rand al'Thor Oct 11 '17 at 13:49
  • Yeah, that advice seems pretty definitive to me. – user80 Oct 11 '17 at 20:02

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