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In the latest podcast (starting about 41:15), Jeff, Joel and Marco discuss adding a way for anonymous users to provide feedback to answers after all - recognizing the desire of drive-by users to say "thanks" when they find an answer that helps them. In that vein, a concrete suggestion:

Give anonymous users both the possibility of +1ing a contribution, and also adding comments.

However,

  • Anonymous votes get turned into a comment: anonymous upvote - they will not have any other effect on the contribution's score whatsoever

  • Only anonymous upvotes are allowed, not downvotes (effectively making this a "Like" button)

  • Anonymous comments do not trigger a comment notification

  • Anonymous comments have a lower removal threshold when flagged (say, by 2 users instead of 3)

  • Anonymous comments are hidden by default and have to be explicitly opened:

enter image description here

when shown, anonymous comments would be visible in the comments list, slightly highlighted:

enter image description here

the upsides that I can see:

  • It would be a way to channel all the "Thanks!" and "I have this problem too" answers and allow everyone their say, but without annyoing regular users and cluttering the site.

  • Users can point out blatantly incorrect or outdated content without having to sign up, and without having to earn the rep necessary to comment - a problem that is frequently raised on Meta.

the potential downsides:

  • Spam - a problem common to any approach that allows arbitrary comments from anonymous sources.

  • Because anonymously submitted comments get hidden, they will be subject to less community scrutiny than normal comments.

I think the potential upsides are big enough to make this worth trying out.

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3  
I'm not a fan of highlighting the anonymous comments when they're displayed. If they're unimportant enough to hide at all, why draw extra attention to them when they're shown? –  Anna Lear Jun 19 '11 at 2:38

3 Answers 3

up vote 7 down vote accepted

Instead of allowing anonymous users to comment, which would be.. what's the word I'm looking for here.. oh yes, insane .. we funnel their input into a proxy comment:

Anonymous user feedback now in testing

This post was useful

or

This post was not useful

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Looks good. --- –  Pëkka Jul 18 '11 at 15:05

My initial impression is that it sounds like more trouble than it's worth. Allowing more "thanks" and "me too" comments/answers isn't a very compelling goal. Channeling them into comments that are hidden by default may clean things up a little, but any benefit from that is likely to be overwhelmed by the extra moderation effort required to keep spam under control.

Consider also that the site uses a person's "newness" as a major indicator of posts that need to be reviewed because they're likely to be low quality. That will be even truer of people that don't even have to go through the process of signing up. The signal to noise ratio would be so low that no one will ever look at them, meaning we've gone to a lot of trouble just to effectively put up a "Suggestion box" sign above a big trash can.

I think it's probably a net benefit for the site that people have to stop and think "is what I was about to say really important enough to take the time (and not even that much) to sign up?". I also don't think (hard to measure obviously) there's any lack of experts (on the established sites), or lots of questions going unanswered because the only person that knew the answer couldn't be bothered to sign up.

Perhaps it could be considered as a way to jump-start new sites to help them reach critical mass, but then I worry that it would get the site off on the wrong foot. It's important that the sites have high quality, on-topic content right away in order to attract experts and set a good precedent for users who join later.

Finally, having a separate and mostly meaningless "voting" system for anonymous users might obscure the things that set StackExchange sites apart from others and dampen new visitors' interest in the sites.

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The thing is that these contributions are already coming in anyway, in the form of "I have this problem too" answers from new accounts, which then get moderated. SO's voting system is to no small part designed to give the author of a good contribution positive feedback. Why should that feedback be limited to those using the site, and not the wide internet audience that profits from it? Still, the argument that the hidden comments section might become a trash can is valid. Maybe this needs to be limited to votes after all, or comments shown publicly –  Pëkka Jun 18 '11 at 19:18
    
@Pekka - I'm not dead-set against it. I'm skeptical, but I'm interested to see what other people think. Just adding a 'Like' button probably wouldn't hurt much, and it might be interesting to see which questions are helping the internet at large. However I don't think we solve the problem of having to moderate the "me too"s that get past the perimeter by throwing open the gates. –  Brad Mace Jun 18 '11 at 19:26
2  
fair enough, I'm not dead set for it either. Maybe limit the whole thing to upvotes, and collect those in one highlighted comment that says e.g. 5 anonymous upvotes? That would be totally unobtrusive. –  Pëkka Jun 18 '11 at 19:27

I don't think this is a terrible idea, but I just don't see any value in it.

For the comments, you're proposing funneling the "Thanks!" and "Me too!" posts that are currently made in Answer format into a hidden area. How does that help, though? Those posts are still going to be made, they still don't add anything to the site, and they still need to be monitored. Making them invisible by default means that for them to get cleaned up, someone has to be looking for them.

Right now, one comes across a not-an-answer in the normal course of browsing, flags it, and it's a "slam-dunk" when a mod processes the flag. Easy clean-up means it gets done more often, and the work is spread across more people. If you've got these useless comments tucked away somewhere, then only the janitorially-inclined are ever going to see them, which means fewer eyeballs, more work for those few users, and fewer of the comments getting removed. I don't think we want these kinds of posts at all, so why make them easier to create and harder to remove? Just because a random visitor wants to thank the provider of an answer, doesn't mean that the site has to provide a means.

Your other point in favor of anonymous comments is to allow for visitors pointing out "This answer is outdated, bug was fixed in Foo 2.4.3". I'm skeptical as to the likelihood of that happening often. I think it's a lot more likely that comments will be in the "You should totally drop that and try JQuery" vein. If the anonymous commenter has some more recent information, then any number of registered users do too, and it will be provided eventually.*

I think this would be even worse on the less technically-focused SE sites, like Philosophy or Skeptics, where opinions masquerade as answers; this seems like providing a management-approved opening for anecdotes and flames from unaccountable people.

Comments seem like a net loss to me.

As for the anonymous votes, I don't know how a "Like" button would improve the site either. I don't see any real trouble being caused by them, and maybe it would be gratifying and there could be a badge for a hundred on a post.

Still, (I'm trying not to sound elitist here, but...) does it really matter that a random Google visitor found a particular answer helpful? Does that information help future searchers, the answerer, the original asker, other users? Is there any reason to think that such a vote would reflect any of the site's existing values? Do we need a "popularity" measurement on answers? I don't think we'd want anonymous votes influencing real upvotes, nor affecting position on the page, nor rep, nor any other function; I just don't see the benefit that would justify its implementation.

It's good to be welcoming, and we've all experienced the frustration of having to create Yet Another Website Account just to add something to a discussion we come across. The create-an-account bar is fairly low, though, and it helps keep the quality bar high; I think that outweighs catering to strangers' impulses.


*Furthermore, if the anon comment doesn't notify the owner of the answer, and is hidden by default, then how likely is it that the information in even a valuable anon comment is actually going to be disseminated?

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Yeah - anonymous comments are probably not going to work this way, @bemace's answer made me change my mind on that already (I'm leaving the suggestion as to avoid confusion.). I still stand behind anonymous votes, though. Does it matter whether a random Googler found an answer helpful? I think yes, to the extent that it's nice to let the OP know that a contribution was apprecitated. It happens frequently enough (through "Thanks!" answers and such), and is an understandable human desire. It does not matter, however, in terms of reputation, which is why it should be a symbolic gesture only. –  Pëkka Jun 18 '11 at 21:42
    
@Pekka: Yes, to echo your comment: "I'm not dead set" against votes; I'm basically neutral. I see no real downside, and since it's not me who would have to implement them :) I will happily leave the decision to someone else. –  Josh Caswell Jun 18 '11 at 21:49

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