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I don't use the main site much, but I have been a regular participant on Physics SE's main chat: The h Bar, for the past two years. Lately, I have been noticing a drastic drop in the number of subject experts i.e. grad students and professional physicists, visiting the chat. I know that some of the former regulars (including professional physicists and grad students) have either shifted to the software industry or have gotten busier with real-life. Of course, I'm hoping the best for them! At the same time, the main chat seems a bit different these days, and we don't get as many interesting physics conversations; simply because there are not enough active chat users. Perhaps, another issue is that many of the main site users are not even aware that chat exists!

A few quick fixes I could think of are:

  • Create a community advertisement for chat. The 2019 version of community promotion ads should be up soon.

  • Resurrect the bi-weekly chat sessions. We could again start conducting AMAs from time to time.

  • Almost every time I peep into chat these days, I see a couple of new users asking easily Google-able or sometimes nonsensical homework-y questions, with terrible formatting and terrible grammar. Worse is when a user just goes "Is anyone willing to help me?" without giving any hint of their problem. To avoid that, we should hold homework and intro-level physics questions to the same standard as on the main site, in chat i.e. you should

    1. show us your effort and research --- have you done basic Googling at least?

    2. use proper formatting (format mathematical expressions with ChatJax).

    3. use correct spelling, punctuation, and grammar to the best of your ability.

    4. not ask about asking; just ask.

    5. not simply post a screenshot of your question.

    6. not ping random users when asking for help.

To be honest, the last issue (regarding the asker's displayed effort) is what bothers me the most. Such chat messages which ask into-level physics homework questions or JEE-type questions, and don't follow the above 6 rules, should be shifted (immediately, on-sight) to the Problem Solving Strategies room, which was specifically created for discussing beginner-level questions (mostly high school physics) and is less harsh about such rules. I had once mentioned:

Imagine a professional physicist landing up on the main page of the site and noticing such JEE type problems all around. They're sure to go - 'tis not the place for serious physics, and leave the site for good (I half-believe that's already happening :/). Add to that the terrible question formattings.

Recently, I've started to feel the same way about chat. Nevertheless, I would like to hear this community's opinions on this topic and suggestions about how we can bring more experts and enthusiastic physics students to our chat room who'd be more interested in discussing dinosaurs rather than alphabets!


Note: @Chair has given an excellent idea below, that is, we should write up a set of room rules and link it in the room description. That's great and I'm considering starting a new meta thread about that (listing out the "room-rules") once this is settled. But what I'm particularly interested in is: your opinions about what we should do if a new user does not follow the "room rules" (like posting a screenshot of a homework question, pinging random users, posting homework with questions having terrible formattings, etc.). Should we

  1. immediately (on-sight) shift their messages to the problem-solving room after giving them a warning.

  2. immediately (on-sight) delete their messages after giving them a warning.

  3. just give them a warning and do nothing else?

Or something else?

In my opinion, we should go with option 1. However, in case of repeated offenses, we should hand out 30-minute timeouts and perhaps suspensions in the more extreme cases.


@Chair: That's among the main reasons why I was hesitant to write a set of rules as a rough draft. I'm not sure what most people want. It doesn't matter much that I like segregating rooms by topic (i.e. I think homework goes to JEE or problem-solving and meta matters go to physics-meta): if other people don't mind homework, then they stay in the hbar.

I do agree with him that segregating rooms by topics would be a good idea. Post homework and beginner level physics questions in the problem-solving room. Post meta-related issues in the meta room*. Leave the main chat (The h Bar) for discussing dinosaurs (real physics and other interesting stuff)!

Expressing your opinion, at this juncture, is very important --- otherwise, we won't know what you (as a community) want and this issue will remain forever suspended. This discussions needs to take place now so that we can understand the majority opinion and act accordingly.

*I'm aware that the Physics Meta room isn't too active these days. But I'm sure that if you really want to discuss any meta related issue you can simply mention the topic you want to discuss, in The h Bar; the regulars and mods will follow up the discussion in the Physics Meta room.


Related: Have we lost the necessary critical mass of professional physicists?

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    $\begingroup$ I don't visit chat often anymore due to time constraints: i work 12 hours/day and spend the rest of the time with my wife & kids. I imagine I'm not the only one with work-life getting in the way of chat... $\endgroup$ – Kyle Kanos Jan 4 at 11:09
  • $\begingroup$ A question regarding a similar theme but pertaining to the main site: physics.meta.stackexchange.com/q/5102 $\endgroup$ – Chair Jan 4 at 11:11
  • $\begingroup$ Another important issue which is frequently talked about but doesn't seem to be mentioned in this post is the way people sometimes ping random users. I recently saw one person ask the same question in 3 separate rooms, each time pinging a set of users who hadn't previously interacted with them. This may get annoying. Do you believe it's something related to the point you make in the post? $\endgroup$ – Chair Jan 4 at 11:16
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    $\begingroup$ A fourth option for 'things to do when people don't follow room rules' is '30-minute timeout/ban/whatever-they-call-it'. That would be a bit extreme and possibly only for repeatedly offensive people though. I'm all for plain-old deletion and warnings with a link to the rules; I'm inclined to believe that for most cases, that'd be enough, as long as the rules are reasonable enough. $\endgroup$ – Chair Jan 4 at 12:15
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    $\begingroup$ thx for the concern/ ideas. alas scientific professionals maybe dont have a lot of time for social media, its still an emerging medium wrt science norms vs conventional means eg conferences, hence some challenge in attracting top experts to the main site, and (sometimes very informal) chat being even more challenging. suggest that regulars/ mods in the room consider recruitment as some (small) part of their involvement. some kind of publicity at physics conferences could be very helpful. sciencemag.org/careers/2018/11/… $\endgroup$ – vzn Jan 4 at 16:16
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    $\begingroup$ Physics professors just aren't going to spend significant time in the chat no matter what the policy is; even if they did have free time, they could hang out to talk physics any number of other places, such as the coffee machine outside their office. The people who use chat as their main outlet for physics discussion will often be those who don't have others, such as crackpots that have never taken a physics class. Incidentally, the rather poor crackpot to content ratio is why I don't participate much. I'd rather relax any number of other ways. $\endgroup$ – knzhou Jan 4 at 18:39
  • $\begingroup$ To be honest I participate in the chat mostly because I poke my head in regularly to keep an eye on things, which I do because I'm a mod. Which might form the basis of a strategy: recognize that you aren't going to get may SMEs to participate as a matter of course, but if you give them reasons to look in from time to time you stand a chance of hooking them occasionally. $\endgroup$ – dmckee Jan 11 at 20:43
  • $\begingroup$ "Perhaps, another issue is that many of the main site users are not even aware that chat exists!" Or simply, many of the main site users are not aware of the usefulness of such chat (myself included). It may exist, but why go there and start spending time there? $\endgroup$ – Steeven Jan 16 at 7:20
  • $\begingroup$ @Steeven When I joined chat, I mostly used to ask questions (the type of questions which might classify as "too broad" or "too naive" on the main site) and often recieve insightful answers from some of the very knowledgable chat regulars like JR, ACM, Balarka, AFT and some of the other PSE mods. Gradually I got hooked onto the interesting discussions in chat (including but not limited to physics) and started spending more time. It's difficult to express the usefulness of chat in "monetary" terms. Let's just say that it has been a good contributor to my learning process in the past 2 years. $\endgroup$ – Blue Jan 16 at 8:47
  • $\begingroup$ @Blue What you describe here is definitely usefulness. It is a Q/A place similar to the main site but for more "mundane" content, maybe? Sounds useful for me and many others, especially also less skilled users, and maybe effort should be put on awareness of this usefulness of the chat. $\endgroup$ – Steeven Jan 16 at 9:07
  • $\begingroup$ @Steeven In my experience, the percentage of mundane discussions on the main site is way higher than chat. On the Physics SE homepage, at any point of time you'll find that around 50% of the questions are "homework type" or "no-effort-shown type". Chat's doing better than that. And just because some new users ask "naive" or "broad" questions, it doesn't mean all discussions are related to such topics. It's definitely not for more "mundane" content. Think of it as a socialization center or an informal gathering of physicists and physics enthusiasts. $\endgroup$ – Blue Jan 16 at 9:12
  • $\begingroup$ That is quite interesting. I wasn't aware $\endgroup$ – Steeven Jan 16 at 9:16
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I am absolutely in favour of reviving the chat sessions if anyone has good ideas. Likewise, I think an ad could indeed increase at least the awareness that chat exists.

However, I think we need to be careful with the formalization of chat due to its inherently informal nature. Room rules themselves - "no no-effort homework, don't flood the chat, don't ask to ask" - are probably a useful idea so that newcomers don't have to learn the culture by pure osmosis.

But I think declaring in advance what we should do with those that violate them seems both premature and overly specific. The room owners should do whatever seems right in the moment. I can certainly imagine all sort of examples where each of "doing nothing/moving the messages/deleting the messages/suspending the user" would be appropriate. Additionally, it is not guaranteed that the room is 24/7 overseen by a moderator or room owner (although our coverage is pretty good in my impression), so promising a specific consequence would justify disgruntled users pointing to an instance where e.g. the messages were not immediately deleted and asking why it didn't happen there if the rules say this always happens. Only promise a specific consequence if you can afford to actually ensure it.

Lastly, beware a culture where, instead of explaining the rules to newcomers, we just point at the rules and scold the users for not having read them. (No one pays attention to the MathJax link in the room description, so don't expect anyone to pay more attention to any room rules linked there.)

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    $\begingroup$ I think the Python room's guide very closely resembles these propositions. You're right; declaring penalties would make stuff look extremely stiff and unnervingly stiff, and hopefully he rest of the 'guide' would mimic the informal nature of chat. Perhaps we could deal with this, along with the possibility of owners/mods not being around always by having something in our guide saying 'if there's something which troubles you, feel free to ping one of the ROs or mods.' That makes a good basis for dealing with issues on a case-by-case basis. $\endgroup$ – Chair Jan 5 at 15:43
  • $\begingroup$ ...would support weekly chats on broad topics using something like physics.aps.org as a starting point. $\endgroup$ – ZeroTheHero Jan 7 at 20:37
  • $\begingroup$ @ZeroTheHero We have chat sessions on every alternate Tuesday (4 pm - 5 pm UTC) in The h Bar. There's a chat session today. But we don't have sufficient number of users to discuss specific papers (yet), because I believe that needs some level of expertise. However, if you're willing to take the lead on such a session, you're more than welcome! It might also be a good idea to register here, in case the timing's convenient for you. $\endgroup$ – Blue Jan 8 at 14:40
  • $\begingroup$ @Blue did not know such sessions existed. Agree that specific papers might be difficult; low-tech discussions on broader topics based on current papers is more what I had in mind. Cannot be present at set time: some of us must work so that some of you can play. $\endgroup$ – ZeroTheHero Jan 8 at 15:20
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Here's a pretty obvious solution which prevents people from being driven away by help-vampires: we simply formalize all those quick fixes, and give them more specific recognition than 'unspoken canon', which somewhat resembles the present status. Right now, the only written one is 'don't ask about asking', and that's written casually enough for one to easily avoid taking it too seriously.

Instead of having to bring them up each time, we can have a concrete set of guidelines explicitly linked in the room description. I've looked in at the Stack Overflow Python room a few times (link to the room), and they have a distinct set of rules prominently positioned. That should help the well-intentioned askers from accidentally making mistakes, and it will provide strong grounds for formally informing homework dump-like questions that they aren't OK. But with what we have together right now, there's nothing to tell me that posting a picture of my homework there is out of line, as long as I don't start thinking about why I was given that assignment in the first place.

An important consideration is that we should write fun rules which reflect the aspects of the room culture (most notably JR's pictures of food :P), and shows that while there are canons to be conformed to, it's also a place for fun. The Python room does it well: they don't sound like killjoys, and we should make sure we don't either.

Additionally, we will need to stop advertising chat as a possible homework dump. I've seen a lot of comments under homework questions recommending chat in a rather questionable way. Many comments get this right, by mentioning that askers should format their work appropriately and show some effort, but a lot of them don't. The meta question regarding places to ask homework questions has two answers which mention chat: this and this, the second of which provides less than satisfactory warnings (fortunately it's heavily downvoted, though those seem to be for other reasons). Our advertisements of chat should be carefully worded.

This leaves the issue of attracting experts to the chats without a resolution. I think one way to add some interesting content there would be to redirect some of the questions which are closed as opinion-based, engineering, and non-mainstream on the main site to chat. Again, we must be careful about which ones we redirect. The non-mainstream policy is designed to keep out random speculation, which would be just as annoying in a chat. But there are some more subtle questions which would probably be OK, though I haven't seen examples. Engineering questions have a similar case: I'm sure a few of the borderline ones (particularly those not resembling 'build this device for me') would be of some interest to chat users, though they're technically off-topic on the main site. I have certainly seen a few well-thought out but unfortunately opinion-based questions closed (though I don't have any links at my disposal), and those would be great chat topics. The standard format of these salvageable opinion-based questions is 'what do you think of so-and-so paper?' (Note: an attempt to create this kind of conversation in chat was very well-received but apparently unsuccessful. The meta post regarding the same is here)

I lurk in chat without saying much, so I think that a set of guidelines written by a more regular participant would be a better reflection of what exactly people would want to talk about. I just thought I'd chime in since the Python room's guide looked like something worth mentioning and it answers the question to some extent.

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  • $\begingroup$ I like the word “help-vampire”... and I don’t agree with moving the homework question elsewhere: this is literally displacing the problem, not solving it. $\endgroup$ – ZeroTheHero Jan 5 at 20:03
  • $\begingroup$ @ZeroTheHero I sort of agree with you, but what do you suggest to solve the problem? (Let's remember that a rule which is not enforced is as good as no rule at all. If we do nothing at all against such messages, then we're back to square one --- new users will keep posting them. People don't seem to care about warnings much.) $\endgroup$ – Blue Jan 5 at 22:27
  • $\begingroup$ @Blue delete/close the stuff as soon as possible. Send to this post: physics.meta.stackexchange.com/questions/9369/… $\endgroup$ – ZeroTheHero Jan 5 at 22:49
  • $\begingroup$ @ZeroTheHero We can't "close" messages in chat. All we can do is "delete" but I guess some users feel that's too harsh and can make the community seem hostile. Also, see ACM's answer for another perspective. $\endgroup$ – Blue Jan 5 at 22:51
  • $\begingroup$ @ZeroTheHero Hmm I was under the impression that a lot of Meta Stack Exchange posts discourage the usage of the term because it's somewhat harsh; I used it after some hesitation. Here's a fun page about the term: slash7.com/2006/12/22/vampires. Regarding the idea that this is displacing the problem and not solving it, I think that's based on the mindset of the owners/regulars of the problem-solving room; they'll clarify the circumstances under which moving messages is appropriate. $\endgroup$ – Chair Jan 6 at 3:49
  • $\begingroup$ FYI, that first link isn't talking about the h-bar chat, it's talking about the problem solving strategies chat, so it's pretty much spot on. $\endgroup$ – JMac Jan 15 at 17:55
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Make it visible on the internet.

The chat links looks like an ad banner and my banner blindness automatically filter them out. I have never noticed it's there and I have never used the chat and I have never, ever arrived on any Stack Exchange chat page from Google or from any search engine. Either they are actively excluded from indexing, or have terrible SEO.

I guess others ignored it too for the same reasons so far. If we can fix this, then people will come.

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  • $\begingroup$ The only way I end up on a chat page through Google is when I search for "h bar stack exchange chat", but I can't imagine any casual searcher finding what they're looking for in old chat records. Also, there's more drama (1, 2) in chat moderation, perhaps because it's more informal. It's debatable whether what goes on in chat is ideally representative of what SE is. Anyways, a person needs 20 rep to chat. $\endgroup$ – Chair Jan 15 at 13:30
  • $\begingroup$ I've only ever accessed chat though the SE menu (SE icon -> chat) or through internet bookmarks and have never thought to search for it through Google/Bing/DuckDuckGo/etc. It also may be intentional that Google doesn't raise SE chats to the top of searches. $\endgroup$ – Kyle Kanos Jan 16 at 11:13
  • $\begingroup$ Related: Why aren't all messages on Chat SE indexed by search engines like Google? @KyleKanos Yes, it is partly intentional. SE wants users to focus on the Q&A interface rather than the "third-place". And compared to the main site, not many development hours have gone into chat and its related tools. So I guess they're not yet ready to advertise it as one of their main products. $\endgroup$ – Blue Jan 16 at 12:08
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To be ruthless about it, in order to keep and gain more professionals, completely, totally ban the homework related questions. Currently, people that ignore the homework warnings are still treated nicely, but I think this is one area where the "be nice" policy is actively working to reduce the quality of the site.

I've been on and off this site for five years, and in that time Google has really picked up on indexing homework questions. This has driven away all but the most dedicated professionals and I'm doubtful that this decline can be reversed.

Self-interest disclaimer: The site is an invaluable resource for self study types like myself, but imo the homework questions are slowly killing it.

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    $\begingroup$ I'm a professional, professor at university, and I disagree with this idea the homework questions are the Evil. I've answered homework questions on the Internet for about ten years, and also recently on SE sites (examples here, here, here and here), and I personally know other professionals (some of them are also around SE) who like to answer homework questions. $\endgroup$ – Massimo Ortolano Jan 7 at 13:22
  • $\begingroup$ And we answer this kind of questions because we think that homework questions are a great opportunity to teach certain concepts. $\endgroup$ – Massimo Ortolano Jan 7 at 13:24
  • $\begingroup$ @MassimoOrtolano My own questions are undoubtedly homework type for a lot of people here, so I have nothing but respect for people like yourself that put in the time and effort. Perhaps, if we just enforced the rules a bit more on blatant "do my homework" type questions. I appreciate that this is a perennial issue, only time will tell how it works out. Regards. $\endgroup$ – user214814 Jan 7 at 15:52
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    $\begingroup$ @MassimoOrtolano The issue is not the odd homework question, but the flood of duplicate homework questions. How many times do simple circuit questions, twin paradox questions or relativistic addition of velocity questions need to be answered? This is especially frustrating as clearly some users don't bother to check for duplicates or near duplicates. A total ban is really radical, but something has to give else the site will be completely polluted by trivial versions of trivial questions. $\endgroup$ – ZeroTheHero Jan 7 at 19:53
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    $\begingroup$ @MassimoOrtolano I’m only repeating what others have said actually: physics.meta.stackexchange.com/a/5107/36194 $\endgroup$ – ZeroTheHero Jan 8 at 0:35
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    $\begingroup$ I'm a professional, and the existence of people asking for homework help in chat has nothing to do with my reduced presence in chat. $\endgroup$ – DanielSank Jan 10 at 19:33
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    $\begingroup$ This answer seems to be confusing the main site and chat. This thread is about the latter. $\endgroup$ – Emilio Pisanty Jan 16 at 9:38

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