Beyond Facebook: How the World's Mathematicians Organize Online

MathOverflow.jpg

Most Americans belong to an online community of some sort. Some share baby photos or funny videos with their friends. Others jabber about the news cycle or bacon.

And then there are those who want to know the natural process that produces Zipf's law or the formal consequences of the Riemann-Roch theorem. For mathematicians, the forum of choice is Math Overflow (which turned one year old on Tuesday), an online community powered by a particular type of software that's profoundly affecting the way researchers communicate and collaborate using the Web.

At a time when Malcolm Gladwell (among others) is questioning the value of the Internet as an organizational platform, Math Overflow is an excellent example of a complex and organized online project. Developed in 2009 by a group of Berkeley grad students and post-docs, Math Overflow was conceived as a question and answer forum for research-level mathematicians. Boasting 2,700 active users ranging from especially bright undergrads to Fields medalists, the basic function of the site is to answer the highly technical questions that crop up in math research.

"Sometimes you come across a problem that you can't solve yourself, but someone else has probably already solved -- if you only knew who to ask," said Anton Geraschenko, a UC Berkeley grad student and one of the minds behind Math Overflow. "Intermediary steps are incredibly important in math, and some intermediary proofs are usually regarded as so self-evident that they're difficult to track down in publication form. But instead of painstakingly having to prove something already taken for granted, you can find the solution or documentation elsewhere. Math Overflow seems like magic because you post a question and 'poof,' you get this answer that's extremely intricate in a short amount of time."

In the past, researchers would have gone to department tea to seek out solutions to intermediary problems, but these discussions were often limited to the faculty and resources of a given institution. Online mathematics forums are a more recent development, existing on sites like sci.math, group wikis like the Polymath Project, or in the comments on well-read math blogs.

But organizationally, Math Overflow stands apart from its predecessors. Math Overflow is a community-moderated forum; users vote on the most accurate answers to the questions posed and gain reputation points based on participation, the most active of whom are granted various moderation privileges. The best answers are voted to the top of the page, while the worst ones are voted to the bottom.


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At first glance, MathOverflow looks like a scaled-down version of popular social news sites like Reddit or Digg. But users aren't voting on the most entertaining content or debating each other in sprawling threads. Math Oveflow is almost an anti-social network, focused solely on productively addressing the problems posed by its users. Heavily moderated, the guidelines for asking questions are designed to discourage unnecessary chatter and keep the community's focus on a question at hand. "Math Overflow is not for homework help," blares the FAQ page. "Math Overflow is not for discussion. Math Overflow is not your encyclopedia." Open-ended conversations are relegated to a separate meta thread.

"We've tried to make the forum as 'professional' as possible," said Scott Morrison, a Miller Fellow at UC Berkeley's math department and moderator at MathOverflow, when asked about the interactive nature of Math Overflow "We've been pretty strict about good behavior, too, absurdly beyond what is common on the Internet. If it wouldn't be appropriate at department tea or particularly during a seminar, it's not at Math Overflow, either."

Presented by

Jared Keller is a former associate editor for The Atlantic and The Atlantic Wire and has also written for Lapham's Quarterly's Deja Vu blog, National Journal's The Hotline, Boston's Weekly Dig, and Preservation magazine. 

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