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Clarification This question is not about "avoiding the pain of downvotes", for which "learn not to care about them" is a perfectly acceptable response. It's also not about avoiding downvotes for quality. It's about whether/how one can question (in the sense of asking about rationale for) entrenched features/policies without invoking a "disagree" response, so as to maximize the possibility that folks will be open and responsive to what you're inquiring about (a la http://www.amazon.com/Crucial-Conversations-Talking-Stakes-Edition/dp/0071771328).

I learned fairly quickly (ok, well maybe not that quickly) that if you embed any opinion in an MSO question, you risk being downvoted by anyone who disagrees with that opinion, no matter how you "tag" the question and no matter how neutrally you phrase the rest of the question.

Similarly, if you ask for pros and cons about a potential change to the system, no matter how strongly you declare you are just seeking information, you will receive downvotes from people who disagree with that change, as if they were voting on a "feature request".

Given my experience with this recent question, it occurs to me that even if your question is entirely neutral and even if you are asking about an existing practice, you risk being downvoted for simply asking questions about a policy or feature that some hold sacrosanct, as if the question itself represents a suggestion that the policy or feature be changed.

I realize there could be other explanations for downvotes on questions, however, such as a subsequent comment by the OP that someone finds offensive or even a pattern of past questions. And then, of course, there's the possibility that the downvoters thought it was a poorly formed or otherwise low-quality question.

In the case of this recent question, there was a comment with three upvotes that expressed the opinion that there were no serious alternatives to the policy, so perhaps the downvotes were cast on the basis that question was spurious.

In any event, my question here is whether folks can point to any questions about sacrosanct topics that didn't receive downvotes. BTW, I'll acknowledge up front that this question may be downvoted as a "waste of time", but I would personally appreciate some counterexamples to my experience that I might be able to learn from.

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Easiest solution is to stop worrying about downvotes to some extent. –  Bart Nov 25 '13 at 13:12
Hmm.. let me see. Well, I held waffles very dearly and was shocked to see him leave and step down as a dev. My post asking about it got only positive attention. (Well, +43/-2 is pretty good ;)) –  Shadow Wizard Nov 25 '13 at 13:16
@Bart Solution to what? –  Peter Alfvin Nov 25 '13 at 13:18
@Bart I wasn't just trying to be glib. I can't say that I'm entirely immune to downvotes at this point, but this really isn't about my "feelings". Aside from being intellectually interested in the phenomenon, I think that anyone who downvotes (and the many who don't but may have the same internal reaction) aren't really open to whatever it is they've downvoted. If you can ask questions without invoking downvotes, that means you've done a better job of non-threatening inquiry. –  Peter Alfvin Nov 25 '13 at 13:30
That "commandment" only applies to you @Dilaton... –  Yannis Nov 25 '13 at 13:48
Pro-tips: 1. Avoid embedding opinion(s) in your questions. Your opinions should go in your answers, not in your questions. 2. Stop caring about Meta downvotes. –  Yannis Nov 25 '13 at 13:54
@AaronBertrand This has nothing to do with rep or fear. See update at bottom of question and related comments. –  Peter Alfvin Nov 25 '13 at 14:45
I still think you are judging the wrong thing and, regardless of what you say, you are afraid of being down-voted. And I just don't understand that. This question, for example, in spite of its negative score, has raised some interesting discussion. Who cares about the score? It's not like people ignore negative questions. In fact, on meta, I suspect it's quite the opposite. Worry about the content, not the score. –  Aaron Bertrand Nov 25 '13 at 14:47
@Peter the whole premise of your question is around the "risk" of getting down-voted. If you aren't afraid of this risk, what exactly is the problem? Also, while you may be able to argue that it isn't possible to "disagree" with a question (and I disagree with that anyway), it is only one of the things the arrows are used for - and it is completely up to the voter what it means to them. Finally, when I posted my comment, the score was -3 (and I'm not talking about rep here, I'm talking about the net +up/-down - the same "score" badges are based on). –  Aaron Bertrand Nov 25 '13 at 17:09
It's not so much about your "fear" of downvotes. It's just that trying not to get them is pointless. You will get some. Limiting them you do by doing your research, by being clear, and by being constructive. But you'll get them anyway. If you have something you feel that needs to be addressed, don't let downvotes be a concern of any form, as long as you do your best in formulating your proposal. –  Bart Nov 25 '13 at 17:18
@AaronBertrand Not sure how else I could state it. A "downvote" on a question represents a failed question; a failure of dialog. And for everyone person who downvotes, there are certainly others who react the same way and didn't downvote. That's the risk I'm concerned about. You can see evidence of this in the answers and comments. Only one answer responded to the title question (the one that said "no"). And no answer and only only one comment answered the question in the body (the comment that pointed to an example). Everyone else is off on this tangent about downvotes not mattering. –  Peter Alfvin Nov 25 '13 at 17:20
A downvote on a question - particularly on meta - does not represent a failed question. That is something that is stuck in your own mind. A downvote can just as easily represent a failure of various kinds on the part of the voter. So stop worrying about this "risk" and accept it as a fact of life. There is nothing you're going to be able to do to eliminate negativity, poor interpretation, and quite simply disagreement without turning this into a psychological petri dish. –  Aaron Bertrand Nov 25 '13 at 17:21
@probablyPekka Perhaps it's not a fatal failure, but I think it's a failure on some level. If a question is truly neutral, how can you disagree with it except in the sense that you believe the topic should not be questioned? –  Peter Alfvin Nov 25 '13 at 18:37
@Peter you're still stuck on some assumption that all down-votes are solely due to disagreement. And also on some assumption that any down-vote indicates some kind of failure. Neither of these assumptions are true. –  Aaron Bertrand Nov 25 '13 at 18:46
@AaronBertrand I don't assume the first point. I realize and have acknowledged that downvotes may be due to other factors. I realize also that means that you cannot confirm the presence of downvotes and you can only confirm their absence in the absence of downvotes of any other kind. As for disagreement downvotes representing a failure of sorts, it's true I believe that, but that's not an "assumption". That's my choice based on the criteria I establish for whether I've succeeded or failed. –  Peter Alfvin Nov 28 '13 at 17:45
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8 Answers

I don't think it is really possible to post such questions in an entirely neutral way. One generally does not ask for the reasons of a certain policy if one completely agrees with it, you can't entirely hide your motivation and position, the readers will at least guess it in most cases.

But I also don't see this as a significant problem. If there is a feature or rule that I find problematic, I generally don't ask neutrally about it on meta, I make an opinionated feature request detailing my argument why it should be changed. If there is a good reason for the existing behaviour, someone will come along and defend it.

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+1 thanks for the pespective –  Peter Alfvin Nov 25 '13 at 14:03
I was going to say something in resonse to this like "but I don't have a motivation other than to learn". However, it's true that I do have questions about it, which means I don't "completely agree with it", so that's an opinion in an of itself, I guess. FWIW, though, as I've pointed out elsewhere, in this situation and all others that I can think of where I've sought information, I haven't developed a strong opinion about it one way or another, let alone wanted to make a feature request. –  Peter Alfvin Nov 25 '13 at 14:32
@MadScientist: The problem is in the following pattern: question about changement => downvotes => question ban => lack of freedom of expression => which is recognized as something bad and not very civil. –  Revious Apr 1 at 11:49
@Revious The question ban on MSO is extremely conservative, you have to post a lot of heavily downvoted questions to trigger it. I'm not a fan of enabling it here on MSO, but I also haven't seen a case where it was triggered that I considered a false positive, I'd probably have suspended those users manually before the automatic ban. –  Mad Scientist Apr 1 at 11:55
@MadScientist: I also prefer the question ban to the suspension. But the system has some "bugs". We are civil, we like dialogue. Explain me why this question deserved 20 downvotes and a q-ban. meta.stackexchange.com/questions/222949/… ; and if you like, please, also explain me the need for drastic measure (exponential length raising of suspension) –  Revious Apr 1 at 11:59
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Sure it is. There are 35 thousand questions here that've never received a single down-vote. I've asked 28 of them myself - here's one, questioning something that many folks hold dear indeed...

Can you guarantee this? Of course not. Anyone with the privilege to down-vote is free to vote on whatever they want, however they want. And some of them are really critical. There is no question immune from down-votes. The example I linked to from the previous paragraph will probably collect one within the hour...

That's not really what you're asking though. You want to know if it's possible to question conventional wisdom or raise doubts about sacred cows without attracting a knee-jerk negative response.

Sure. First, stop worrying about down-votes:

Down-votes are probably the last thing someone trying to start a discussion should be concerned about here. I get down-voted fairly often; it stings a bit. "Oh no!" I think to myself, "Someone on The Internet doesn't like me!" But that small bruise to my ego pales in comparison to an actual answer tearing apart my arguments and explaining in gratuitous detail why everything I thought I knew is laughably wrong. You wanna really get under someone's skin? Make them look foolish in front of a bunch of other folks. This is where "answer, don't down-vote" falls apart: instead of quietly burying an unpopular discussion, now you're harpooning it.

You wanna cut past the rhetoric and find the truth? Get folks to think good and hard about something they've taken on faith? Well, you have your work cut out for you. So the last thing you want to be doing is losing track of your goal before you start, couching your question in vague, politically-correct verbiage in hope that folks will be less irritated by it. You'll just end up writing something overly-verbose that folks won't read, won't respond to thoughtfully, or won't respond to at all. Stay Focused On The Problem!

Oh, yeah: you do need to have a real problem in mind. Even if it's just a question that's been troubling you for some reason, gnawing at the back of your mind when doing other things until you feel you must answer it. If you don't state a problem, you're leaving folks free to guess at one... And they may well assume the worst of you.

Beyond that, the best advice for asking a meta question is the same advice we give to folks asking questions on the main sites:

  • Search, and research
  • Be on-topic
  • Be specific
  • Make it relevant to others
  • Keep an open mind

Amazingly, a good question looks pretty much the same everywhere.

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As usual, I find your answer to be a mixture of much appreciated references and not-so-much-appreciated presumptuous lecture. :-) You're right that when I said "question something that people hold dear" in the title I was using "question" in the sense of "ask for justification and/or alternatives", so questions without downvotes per se are not very relevant. But you're wrong that I'm "worried about downvotes" or that in all cases I have "a problem". And I'm sorry, but you can't turn any question into a problem (or assume one is behind it). Sometimes it really is just intellectual curiosity. –  Peter Alfvin Nov 27 '13 at 8:15
IMHO, intellectual curiosity can represent a problem to be solved (in the sense of something that drives one to search for an answer). I used the example question in my first paragraph for a reason: more and more, I'm convinced that the distinction between an answerable question asked in good faith and idle or manipulative curiosity comes down to the willingness of the asker to ask a question whose answers can be tested and verified by some means - in other words, a question that is clearly intended to enable some action. Even if that action is the continued pursuit of knowledge. –  Shog9 Nov 27 '13 at 17:08
:-) Like many of our exchanges, this one makes me think that getting to a shared understanding will require more time that I'm willing to put into it. Suffice to say that I do not agree with the links you've made between "question asked in good faith" => "[question that can be] tested and verified" => "question intended to enable some action". I think many good questions cannot be tested and verified and are not intended to enable some action. Further, I don't think "idle curiosity" is necessarily or even usually a bad thing. –  Peter Alfvin Nov 28 '13 at 3:02
@PeterAlfvin, "idle curiosity" may not be a bad thing for a questioner, but it can be construed as wasting everyone else's time and filling the question queue with things-about-which-we-can-do-nothing. So, as others have previously stated, the downvotes may have nothing to do with the subject of the question. –  Benjol Nov 28 '13 at 9:36
@benjoi Interesting. Do you feel the same way about SO questions or is this unique to MSO? Most SO questions have little/no relevance to most other users and some are truly unique to the asker (e.g. "find the bug in my code" questions), yet are widely tolerated if not universally accepted. In any event, this is helpful. I can see that if the "practical purpose" of a question is not evident, you're certainly at risk of "quality" downvotes. –  Peter Alfvin Nov 28 '13 at 17:37
The problems are not the downvotes.. it's the question ban which follows. I've experimented it 3 times for question like this: meta.stackexchange.com/questions/222949/… –  Revious Apr 1 at 11:51
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I think what went wrong with that question you point to isn't that it somehow triggers "fears of change" in people, but because its intentions aren't transparent (and, as I said in a comment, it makes something look like a choice that may not really have been one) and it is difficult to see what the final purpose of the question is.

Perhaps this intransparency was because you wanted to avoid making a feature-request, which is fair enough, but the result, to me, just looked super weird and made me go, "what is the purpose of this question?".

Just say what you think - even if it means it becomes a feature request. Put it well, and you'll be fine even if that specific contribution gets downvoted in the ground. Meta can be a rough place and downvotes are cast liberally - my first contribution here reached -7 or so within a couple of hours. But if you respect the community by doing prior research and making a constructive, original suggestion with sound reasoning (as you do all the time, not saying you don't), it will respond in kind - if not through a positive voting pattern, then through answers that explain why a feature shouldn't be implemented, and a growing sense of respect for future suggestions.

It goes without saying that the mechanism of coupling votes on suggestions with reputation isn't a great idea. A major remodeling of Meta that will likely address this is said to be in the works, but no due date has been set.

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It's interesting that you (and others) seem to think that I have an ulterior motive in these situations aside from learning about the issue. I really don't think I do. And I certainly don't have enough of an opinion formed to make a feature request. I do typically have some thoughts/concerns, but I found in my earlier experience that sharing those isn't really conducive to encouraging the free flow of ideas unless they happen to be truly balanced. –  Peter Alfvin Nov 25 '13 at 14:24
@Peter I think the (few!) downvotes received on that question were an issue of wording mainly. That may well have to do with the specific audience here, which is confronted with lots of suggestions every day (and may be conditioned to be looking for ulterior motives everywhere, although I think your choice of words "fear of change" is beside the point and a bit insulting....) FWIW, I removed my downvote after your clarification –  Pëkka Nov 25 '13 at 14:29
OK I'm starting to somewhat see your point, I'll write another answer later if I can –  Pëkka Nov 25 '13 at 14:35
Thanks for mentioning the "fear of change => insulting". Don't understand your point about "wording" for the other question, though. –  Peter Alfvin Nov 25 '13 at 14:38
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A solid way to ensure unbiased evaluation of your question is to build a support group prior to posting it.

If you convince handful of users that your ideas are worthy, up to the point of quickly following the link, reading your question and voting it up, this would make a substantial protection against instinctive downvotes from zealous "MSO values guards".

Worth noting that this does not make full protection, it only guarantees organic voting, as opposed to one that would be skewed by stamp of disapproval from a couple of quick arrow clickers.

I mean, this way MSO users will read your question, understand it and decide for themselves whether they find your idea is good or bad. If it will just happen that (lots of) readers will decide for themselves that your idea is bad, it may eventually become (heavily) downvoted.

Summing up, building a support group may protect your question only from quickly stamped disapproval - no more... and no less.

For the sake of completeness, an alternative is to write the question in a way that would literally force audience to read it through despite the negative score (a prominent example is here). Many askers seem to believe they're capable of that, but per my observations at MSO, this skill is extremely rare.

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The premise of the question is just bad. You're basically asking:

How do I write the perfect question that will be invulnerable to down-votes?

The simple answer is: you can't. This is like asking how to always avoid traffic on your commute. It's just not possible. You can take all the back roads you want; you will still occasionally end up in a construction zone, near an accident, or behind a school bus. I once got stuck in the HOV lane to Boston for two hours because of an accident ahead of me, and no way to back out - it was not a commuter's friend that day. Still, while you may experience intermittent setbacks, you will find that one route will work better for you in the long run and try not to focus on the one incident two weeks ago that made you late.

While voting on meta can be a little different than main, the reasons for down-votes don't always indicate disagreement. In fact I rarely vote because I disagree with the "question" - if it is even a question, and the Help Center specifically states that agreement / disagreement should really only be used toward voting when the question is a feature request. All kinds of other reasons explain recent down-votes for me (I'm sure there are others, but I only sampled a few):

  • The question was poorly researched (e.g. multiple duplicates exist, the answer is clearly found in the FAQ, they've made some assumption about how the site works without actually checking, etc.). I don't-vote all kinds of questions I don't technically disagree with, I just often find it selfish and unfair when time is wasted by people answering questions that shouldn't need to be asked in the first place.

  • I can't reproduce the bug they've reported, either because they didn't properly explain the actual bug, or they didn't do things on their own side first, like disable add-ins and/or extensions that turn out to clearly be the source of the problem. Instead they complain and complain that SO has some bug.

  • I can't tell what's being asked - and this is especially true when a long comment thread is required to suss out what they really mean, and they still don't clarify correctly and/or get belligerent with the people seeking clarification.

  • Complaints and rants about retribution or some unjust thing that happened to them on main. Especially when I review the post in question or the activity that happened and feel that they are out of line and/or were more interested in calling someone out than trying to establish what the community thought about a certain behavior or incident. When the user is just complaining and not seeking input, they don't get any sympathy from me.

Now, I've been guilty myself of posting "questions" that I would now down-vote. That's the thing about a community - you can learn about it over time, become better adjusted, start appreciating the things you're initially apprehensive about, and in general just grow as a person and a community contributor. Or you can get hung up on what a down-vote means and how you want to try to avoid them at all costs. shrug

As for "score" vs. "rep" - while you may feel that a +2 / -4 question is "good" or "well accepted" simply because 10 - 8 = 2, which is a net positive, I can assure you that most people don't do the math and don't think about it that way. They see that 2 people agreed, thought your question was useful, agreed that your bug report should be fixed etc., and 4 people didn't feel that way. It doesn't really matter if this is +2 / -4 or +22 / -24, because nobody1 is worried about how much rep you received from that question.

On the flip side, I've up-voted many questions that have had a negative score when I stumbled upon them. The current score is not a blinder - I am fully capable, as are most of the folks on meta, to judge a post on its content - and be open to its ideas - regardless of what people before me may have thought (never mind that I know many of those people will have voted for different reasons than me, may have voted on a different version of the post, etc.).

You're looking for the Holy Grail. It's a myth; it doesn't exist. The sooner you accept that, the more willing you'll be to openly communicate here on meta, instead of trying to formulate some magical question that the entire community will accept well, without exception.

1. well, there will always be the occasional busy-body worried about how much rep you've earned from a post.

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You probably did not read this: How do I participate in Meta and not die trying?

Many thanks to Sha Wiz Dow Ard for pointing this to me in Give me a blank Comment box when I am editing my post, below the "edit summary" field

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Lol glad to see you're learning! :) –  Shadow Wizard Nov 25 '13 at 13:18
Actually, I had read that, but thanks for reminding me of the reference. To clarify,though, this has absolutely nothing to do with concern over MSO reputation. Indeed, my experience with even the most massively net-downvoted questions is that they end up being reputation-positive due to the weighting. –  Peter Alfvin Nov 25 '13 at 13:35
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Apart from being as polite as possible I use "or" questions more often and present both sides in the question without making my point too strongly. I rather present my point in an answer where I happily accept all agreement or disagreement.

That way the disagreement should largely concentrate on the answers, not on the question.

Disagreement shouldn't be bad per se. But a downvoted question acts still as a deterrent, unfortunately. And this is what I want to avoid.

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Yes it is possible.

But they will undoubtedly get downvoted anyway.

Like this answer for example.

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Not sure what point you try to prove here. –  Shadow Wizard Nov 25 '13 at 20:06
That it is possible on MSO for people to downvote something that the poster (that is me) holds dear. Guess it was a stupid idea. I intended for this answer to be downvoted mercilessly. –  qwertynl Nov 25 '13 at 20:07
I downvote things that are: wrong, unclear, silly, or that I don't agree with here on Meta. I don't check if their author holds them dear or not. –  Shadow Wizard Nov 25 '13 at 20:11
Neither do I @ShaWizDowArd We have that in common :-) –  qwertynl Nov 25 '13 at 20:15
To understand these down votes you must understand recursion. –  Tim Post Nov 26 '13 at 6:09
Ahhh but to understand recursion you must also understand downvotes too. Right @TimPost ? –  qwertynl Nov 26 '13 at 13:58
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