What do StackExchange "beta" and "meta" mean?



I checked beta in a dictionary and it says beta is the second letter of the Greek alphabet, so does the beta mean second-class?

I can't understand the explanation in a dictionary about meta. Could you teach me?

Yuuichi Tam

Posted 2014-09-25T06:00:54.733

Reputation: 2 263

2I changed stock to stack in your question title, as I suspect that you actually mean this website. – oerkelens – 2014-09-25T06:22:58.010

This question.... might belong to meta as well :D – user3459110 – 2014-09-26T05:28:22.360



Beta (β) is indeed the second letter in the Greek alphabet[1].

In software development, a first testable version of a product is sometimes called the alpha (α) version, or first version. It is tested by designated testers, usually within the company that makes the software.

If that test is passed, the software may be released to a (larger) group of testers, but these testers are actually normal end-users. This version is the second version, or beta. During the beta test period, users are encouraged to report any errors or bugs they find to the company.

Google made it a habit of releasing their software in beta while releasing it eventually to (almost) all of their users, and their “beta test period” could be very very long.

While software is “beta”, it means that there is no guarantee that the software is bug-free or that all features work correctly.

From the meaning in software (beta = public test version), it is now used in other areas as well. On Stack Exchange, a beta site is a site that has not yet been promoted to full functionality. After a site has been proposed, and people are found to support it, a site can go to beta status to show that it can really be useful and successful. It is not a second-class site, but a site in the final test stage.

As for ELL, this site has been in beta for quite a long time now, and quite some people are wondering why it is not promoted to full status yet. Rumour has it that this may actually happen quite soon. You can read more about the StackExchange site statuses on Area 51 and Meta.

That brings us to meta: this means over or about. The word is used to indicate that you talk about something “one level higher”, in an abstract way. I think some examples will clarify the meaning:

ELL is a Stack Exchange site about English for learners. Meta ELL is a site about ELL.

Should I use present perfect or simple present? <- an ELL question.
Should we be nicer to ELL users? <- an ELL meta question.

We can have a discussion about subject X. We can have a meta discussion about that discussion.

I think that X is true because of Y and X. <- discussion
This discussion is going nowhere because you are not listening to any of my arguments. <- meta-discussion

If I write a book with all the words in a language and their meaning, I have written a dictionary.

If I write a book about how to write a dictionary, I can say I have written a meta dictionary.

[1]In standard English, an alphabet is a collection of letters. In Indian English an alphabet can mean a single character, but it may and will confuse speakers of other English dialects!


Posted 2014-09-25T06:00:54.733

Reputation: 24 925

6It may be of interest to readers to point out that the word alphabet comes from those letters alpha and beta. – KRyan – 2014-09-25T14:10:08.240

In computer science, one can consider the alphabet with no characters! – None – 2014-09-25T17:03:36.260

1I think that meta-dictionary would have to be a dictionary for use when writing a dictionary, not just a general book. – svick – 2014-09-25T17:14:30.967

2@Svick Yes, meta is "X about X" where X is the same in both cases. So in this case a Q&A site about a Q&A site. Metadata is Data about Data, Metamaps are Maps of Maps, Metaverse is Universes of Universes, etc. – Tim B – 2014-09-25T17:45:48.693

@TimB So oerkelens should edit his answer accordingly to avoid the confusion (to point out that it must be a dictionary about a dictionary, not just a book). – user26486 – 2014-09-25T19:06:24.720

1Yeah, I believe the literal translation of meta is "beyond." Metaphysics is a school of philosophy in which scholars discuss the meaning of things beyond the physical world; the spirit, the soul, etc. Some young people in America use "meta" as an adjective in conjunction with media that practice self-commentary, i.e. an action movie which comments on the tropes of action movies. – Crazy Eyes – 2014-09-25T21:42:06.630

@RickyDemer According to Wikipedia, the empty set doesn't count as an alphabet. – Brilliand – 2014-09-25T21:45:46.147

I just realized that bit about Indian English is true. Indeed, we have been taught "The Alphabets" rather than "The Alphabet". – ADTC – 2014-09-26T01:42:32.440

The beta version has no guarantees that it works correctly and has no bugs... but the final version doesn't either. For example, 'Stack Exchange makes no representations or warranties of any kind with respect to the Network, the Services, including any representation or warranty that the use of the Network or Services will (a) be timely, uninterrupted or error-free or operate in combination with any other hardware, software, system or data, (b) meet your requirements or expectations, (c) be free from errors or that defects will be corrected, (d) be free of viruses or other harmful components.' – Max – 2014-09-26T09:02:22.303

@TimB Taken literally, metaverse would be a verse of verse, which might be considered a poem... – Tobias Kienzler – 2014-09-26T09:55:46.200

The practice of releasing 'beta' or even 'alpha' software to anyone who wanted to download it, rather than a selected group of testers, definitely predates Google - the programs I used on Macs in the mid-'90s for ftp, Gopher, newsgroups and so on all described themselves as betas and the Mosaic web browser was an alpha, IIRC. (It crashed. A lot.) – nekomatic – 2014-09-26T11:53:54.470

@CrazyEyes You are absolutely right. meta means beyond, so metaX is something that's about things beyond X. Also, the Latin word for beyond is ultra, which, as meta, is still used extensively. – Bakuriu – 2014-09-26T12:02:53.177


Re meta, I agree that it means a higher level of abstraction, but I don't agree that it's simply "X about X". For many values of X, that doesn't even make sense. "Car about cars"? It might be better to say it's "information about information", in which the "information" can be about anything, or "an abstraction of X that describes or refers to X". For instance, in my view the Zachman Framework is an Enterprise Architecture meta-model, from which an actual EA model can be instantiated by binding the abstractions to real-world entities. (John A. Zachman agrees, BTW.)

"Meta" has overtones of two other intriguing concepts -- recursion and fractals, which are themselves intimately related, since a fractal is a recursion of a pattern at decreasing scale (e.g. the Mandelbrot Set). Think of a 3D printer that can make 3D printers, necessarily at decreasing scale until they become so tiny they need micro-manipulators to set them up for the next run. :) Is it a meta-printer?

As the author of a computer language / data / unstructured text expert system, I do meta every day, meta-meta often, and triple-meta occasionally. In fact, we refer to the system's rules language as "meta-code", because it's a computer language that manipulates computer languages in symbolic form.

There used to be a company named Meta 4, which was a very neat play on words, because their product was a computer emulation system that effectively created a "meta computer".

Stephen F. Heffner

Posted 2014-09-25T06:00:54.733

Reputation: 1

A meta-car would be, indeed, a car about cars -- perhaps a car-carrying trailer. – Russell Borogove – 2014-09-26T02:14:57.853

2The concept of "meta" can certainly lead to some interesting discussions, but how does this answer help someone learning English understand the difference between beta and meta in the context of the question they asked? I think a non-native speaker would struggle to understand your answer because of the terminology and the sentence structures you've used. – ColleenV – 2014-09-26T03:09:06.250