The Problem

Democracy is a wonderful thing, but to quote Heinlein:

[M]ajority rule gives the ruthless strong man plenty of elbow room to oppress his fellows.

With that in mind, I want to point out that meta's current semantics for is broken. The current system actively discourages many people from posting thoughtful (but opinionated) questions or answers to questions that don't have an objective right or wrong. That is supposed to be the point of the tag. The tag's wiki currently says:

A discussion question may not necessarily have a clear-cut right or wrong answer and is often subjective.

However, the current ability to vote down discussions results in an echo-chamber effect. Symptoms of this include:

  1. People without rep to burn tend to avoid postings that will get down-voted, especially on contentious issues with a potential for a pile-on effect.
  2. People hide out in comments, criticizing others' opinions without offering anything substantive as a competing answer. Go head; I'll wait while you count the number of "You're wrong because..." comments that should really be posted as answers.
  3. The loudest and most opinionated people tend to drown out other voices, and to short-circuit the possibility of discussion by aggressively down-voting differing opinions.

All of these things should be easy to fix by a community that is solutions-oriented.

Propose a Solution

Please propose a constructive solution if you have one. If you don't think there's a problem, and that things are perfectly fine as they are, then feel free to upvote one of the existing answers that says the status quo is great, or add your own alternative.

Downvoting this question just means you don't want to consider the merits of the idea, either pro or con. That is not constructive, but hey--it's your vote.

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    +0: I agree with the sentiment that the discussion system on MSO is broken, but I disagree with the proposed solution :(. – Matt Jun 10 '12 at 19:54
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    Obligatory answer disguised as comment stating how totally utterly completely WRONG you are: The number of comment-answers is high because if you don't have much to say, many people (me included) put it in a comment. Answers, even on meta, should generally be more than 400 chars, IMO. – Manishearth Jun 10 '12 at 20:11
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    Btw, if this is implemented, I will C&H roll every [discussion] post ever. Want that? ;-) – Manishearth Jun 10 '12 at 20:18
  • Do you have any examples of answers downvoted because they're against the grain and not because they're just trolling? – random Jun 10 '12 at 20:36
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    Meta is not only a discussion zone; it is also a voting booth. Hence voting (and especially downvoting) needs to stay. I could live with making all discussion threads auto-CW though – Pëkka Jun 10 '12 at 22:14
  • The loudest and most opinionated people tend to drown out other voices how? Do they have more than one vote because they have such loud voices? I have a very loud voice. Where can I fetch my extra votes? – Pëkka Jun 10 '12 at 22:50
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    -1 you're effectively butchering democracy by creating an environment where people can only agree; if someone posts a terrible or controversial answer, my only opposition would be to (non-anonymously) post a complete answer disagreeing with their posts. I shouldn't have to post a whole answer or even comment just to say "No". – Ben Brocka Jun 11 '12 at 0:03
  • @BenBrocka You just spent 328 characters and a downvote to express an opinion...but you managed to do it in a comment where no one can vote on the merits of your opinion. Please post your response as an answer to avoid "butchering democracy," and so that I don't have to post an answer to your answer just to say "No." kthnx. – CodeGnome Jun 11 '12 at 0:23
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    Your wrong because...well, because of all the stuff discussed in meta.stackexchange.com/questions/125071/… – dmckee Jun 11 '12 at 0:37
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    @BenBrocka just posted in a place where only upvotes are visible and taken and there is no other option (other than flagging) to dissent or disagree. Looks like the future system is already at work. – random Jun 11 '12 at 0:50
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    You still haven't pointed out where users have been drummed out in the current system which is being labelled as broken for fostering even more discussion – random Jun 11 '12 at 1:00
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    @random Gee, well, since I'm not a moderator or S.O. admin, I don't actually have access to that information. Possibly you do. As counterpoint, please point me to your data showing that no one has ever dropped out of SO or meta as a result of the current system. Hint: you can't just point to the size of the user base; growth and attrition aren't at issue here, but rather your imputation that there's zero correlation between the discussion system and any churn. – CodeGnome Jun 11 '12 at 1:14
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    @CodeGnome Moderators have access to some nifty tools, but there is a "find drummed out users" link that I'm aware of. Your best bet might be to troll Data Explorer for users with many net negative score and look for a activity arc. My personal experience is that we bend over backwards to tolerate really obnoxious users in the name of inclusiveness and generally not be big meanies. Take that for what you will. – dmckee Jun 11 '12 at 2:38
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    @CodeGnome: "please point me to your data showing that no one has ever dropped out of SO or meta as a result of the current system." Um, why? The fact that someone, somewhere, dropped out at some point is not a priori bad. Sometimes, people just have really bad ideas. Some people refuse to understand what SE is all about, and will constantly propose things that will undermine the site. There is a difference between an unpopular idea and a bad idea. The problem is that the current method has no way to distinguish between these; unpopular means bad. – Nicol Bolas Jun 11 '12 at 4:46

The current system actively discourages many people from posting opinionated answers to questions that don't have an objective right or wrong, which is supposed to be the point of the tag.


I don't know what you're basing this assertion on, but I can only assume you have a rather convenient definition for "many" that happens to exclude the vast numbers of people who have and continue to post opinionated answers to subjective questions here on MSO.

Or... Perhaps you're trying to say, "the current system actively discourages many people from posting completely unsubstantiated opinions that add nothing to the discussion but noise" - in which case I still don't believe you, but... If true, GOOD.

There are plenty of aspects of discussion on meta sites that are less-than-optimal. IMHO, chat goes a long way toward solving many of them, but that doesn't mean there's not still room for improvement. But I strongly disagree that allowing people to down-vote useless opinions is a problem. Feel free to prove me wrong...

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    Kindly? No. Opinionated? Yes. @gdoron. – Shog9 Jun 10 '12 at 22:18
  • Sure, @gdoron. But that wouldn't encourage down-votes as easily then, would it... And let's face it: in this context, "I dare say you may be somewhat mistaken or perhaps even willfully ignorant in this matter" is only superficially more polite; there are a half-dozen more diplomatic answers here already... Let's cut to the chase. – Shog9 Jun 10 '12 at 22:23
  • @gdoron I can't believe you downvoted for that reason on this question. We're discussing the appropriate use of downvotes and that's certainly not what they're for. – gobernador Jun 10 '12 at 22:41
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    -1. You mean, am I against "answers" like yours that basically assume any opinion but yours is objectively wrong? You bet I am...and I thank you for your post, which illustrates my point better than anything else I could imagine. – CodeGnome Jun 10 '12 at 22:44
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    @CodeGnome: Good. I'm against them too. Now, can you explain why we would want to make any changes to discussion that would encourage such answers? – Shog9 Jun 10 '12 at 22:46
  • Evelyn Beatrice Hall once wrote, "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." If the current system doesn't prevent such posts, then a new system that provides a better balance of voices is needed. – CodeGnome Jun 10 '12 at 23:00
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    @CodeGnome I don't follow. Are you in favour of preventing these kinds of posts? I was under the impression you meant the opposite – Pëkka Jun 10 '12 at 23:01
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    @Pekka You misunderstood; please read it again. Nothing prevents bad posts, and there are plenty of tools to clean those up. My point is that the whole "bad posts" argument is a straw dog; the real issue is whether everyone should be allowed a voice, or only people who advance popular opinions. – CodeGnome Jun 10 '12 at 23:10
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    @Code "bad" posts aren't necessarily low quality posts. "bad" in a Meta context means that a large number of Meta users doesn't think the idea or opinion expressed is a good thing for Stack Overflow. Meta is not really supposed to be a marketplace of ideas, it's a place to gauge how the community stands on issues. Plus, while I agree removing rep from the equation would be a good idea, your rep argument is moot. 1 upvote counters 5 downvotes. Unless your post is complete garbage, it's always going to net you points. – Pëkka Jun 10 '12 at 23:21
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    @Pekka: There's just one problem. If you post too many things that the MSO community deems to be not a good idea, then you get answer-banned. So if you disagree too much with the community, not only do you lose rep (and therefore privileges), you also lose the chance to even give your opinion a fair hearing. The point is that unpopular opinions still need a voice. – Nicol Bolas Jun 10 '12 at 23:23
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    @Pekka: "Meta is not really supposed to be a marketplace of ideas, it's a place to gauge how the community stands on issues." This post is saying that voting is not a good gauge of how "the community" stands on an issue, because voting itself prevents people from voicing their opinion. I personally have avoided giving voice to certain views because I know they would simply be ignored and down-voted. This kind of behavior creates and echo-chamber effect, such that the only voices are those that already agree with the plurality. – Nicol Bolas Jun 10 '12 at 23:26
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    @Nicol That is a problem that can be solved only through personal courage, not by making the system seem nicer. You're always going to have a hard time when going against a group's consensus... that's just the way it is, and the group isn't necessarily always wrong. And it's not like Meta is arresting and torturing dissenting voices, it's just downvoting them, usually even with no rep loss because (as said above) if you don't post complete garbage, you will usually find at least one person agreeing with you. I do agree that the answer ban needs to be removed from Meta, though... – Pëkka Jun 10 '12 at 23:29
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    @Nicol show me a dissenting voice on Meta Stack Overflow that has actually had a net loss of reputation points, and lost their user rights, after making some constructive posts whose only fault was that they went against the mainstream opinion. As said, one upvote makes up for five downvotes. I put it to you that this supposed big rep loss caused by going against the Mainstream is a myth. If you have evidence to the contrary, show it. – Pëkka Jun 10 '12 at 23:34
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    @Code the psychological and sociological side is that negative feedback hurts, and that we crave positive feedback from our peers. I get that - despite my many meta repz (which are really entirely worthless btw), I get frequently miffed when the community shuns an idea of mine that I think is great. But removing the negative feedback is not the solution. That's just creating the illusion the feedback isn't there. – Pëkka Jun 10 '12 at 23:45
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    Everyone who downvoted this answer...think what that means if you also support the idea in the question. Food for thought. – Ben Brocka Jun 11 '12 at 0:08

Downvotes work, even in discussion.

I just had an answer receive 2 immediate downvotes here on meta, so instead of complaining about downvoting, I decided to consider what was wrong with the post I wrote.

I decided the downvotes were telling me the answer was too harsh, and I ultimately agreed with that, so I modified my answer to be less.. strident in tone. (You can look up my recent answers to see which one it was.)

Therefore, I am glad when people downvote my posts, as it gives me an opportunity to consider how I might improve them, and why they are not seen in a favorable light by others.

  • While I agree that crowd-sourcing is generally a good thing--I am active on SO, after all--I truly think this doesn't address the issues I raised in the question. I've lost over 20 rep so far (14 at one shot--probably a moderator?) just for advancing this idea as worthy of discussion, and expect that number to go higher as people pile onto whatever the moderators answer. The downvotes in no way represent consensus (the upvotes do, perhaps), they just punish people for advancing unpopular opinions. shrug If that's "as-designed," well, it's always good to know where one stands. – CodeGnome Jun 11 '12 at 1:32
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    @CodeGnome, -14 rep "at one shot" just means seven people downvoted within whatever threshhold vote events are reported -- moderators don't have more votes per post than anyone else. How can upvotes represent consensus but not downvotes? Either is an expression of opinion. A consensus can be against an idea just as much as for. – Josh Caswell Jun 11 '12 at 2:01
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    @CodeGnome no, you have actually gained 5 reputation points from this question - 25 points from upvotes, minus 20 points from downvotes. And you've lost me completely with your argument that downvotes are "punishment", while upvotes suggest "consensus"... – Pëkka Jun 11 '12 at 2:07
  • @JoshCaswell I understand from other posts on meta that moderators can vote more than once. That's sort of a side issue, though, since this issue isn't really about rep. --In a discussion, consensus should be for some articulated viewpoint, not a rejection of a viewpoint without offering an alternative. – CodeGnome Jun 11 '12 at 2:08
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    @CodeGnome: You need to pick a different word, because "consensus" just means a summing up of opinions, for or against. – Josh Caswell Jun 11 '12 at 2:14
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    @CodeGnome moderators can not vote more than once. Re your discussion argument, maybe that's the core of our disagreement... using your definition of "discussion" on Meta sounds like a recipe for insanity. – Pëkka Jun 11 '12 at 2:20
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    @Josh in certain circles--such as the church I attend--"consensus" has come to mean more than that: that almost all the opinions are in at least grudging agreement (only the grumpy curmudgeon is allowed to be in dissent) and that rainbows and ponies prance about the landscape in approval of the caring and joyous process that arrived at the agreement. You are welcome to draw what every opinion you like about how I see this new definition. – dmckee Jun 11 '12 at 2:34
  • @dmckee: Thanks, noted. O, how I love the narrowing of meaning. Rainbows and prancing ponies seem like they would make for a fun Sunday morning, at least. – Josh Caswell Jun 11 '12 at 2:46

Plenty of discussion on Meta as it is. There are 20 golden badges compared to the two golden badges for support.

Users without EXP to purge are also the freshest to the ecosystem and often barge in throwing their hands in the air shouting about all the ways things should be and how wrong the system and The Man are without spending any time reading and understanding why things are in the first place.

Perhaps it may seem as though only the loudest are heard it's also reflective of the fact that they've taken their chops, hit that grindstone and all other metaphors in hashing out their opinions. Downvotes add character and a bold epoxy in the face of the grain.

Take away the democratic nature of downvotes on answers in discussions and we'll just see plenty of flags pop up in the queue by those who have no other anonymous recourse to express their disagreement. Then we'll talk about hiding out.

If there was a problem to begin with in the discussions. For what it is, it's affectionately as broken and as effective as it needs to be.

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    And users who have been around but still don't have EXP to burn (like the one you've just so neatly alluded to) clearly don't get it despite the time they've spent. – dmckee Jun 11 '12 at 0:39
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    contrary to popular belief, I don't enjoy getting downvoted either, but a community without downvotes is a community of peers unwilling to be honest with each other. – Jeff Atwood Jun 11 '12 at 1:21
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    +1000000000 Users without EXP to purge are also the freshest to the ecosystem and often barge in throwing their hands in the air shouting about all the ways things should be and how wrong the system and The Man are without spending any time reading and understanding why things are in the first place. – Pëkka Jun 11 '12 at 1:29

I could never be in favor of a system that allows users to gain reputation from posts they make without the worry or possibility of losing reputation for those same posts. Not only is that entirely unfair in the sense of reputation, but it would shift it to the other extreme. Users would start posting total nonsense answers in discussion questions which have no meaning just for the sake of posting them because they can't be downvoted for it.

A better solution than just preventing downvotes would be to get rid of the reputation loss for downvotes, since that seems to be why people are worried about it, but that still goes against the fairness of being able to lose reputation as well as gain reputation. So the only plausible solution would be to make discussion questions act more like a community wiki, where you can't gain or lose reputation, and I'm not sure many people would be in favor of that. Community wiki is already [mis]used on occasion to post opinions without having to worry about downvotes.

I personally think a "community wiki" mode for the discussion tag would be a fair alternative. However, you have to also consider reputation already gained from questions which were discussions. Retroactively applying changes is a huge deterrent for a lot of users. Also, flat-out labeling all of our discussions as community wikis seems a bit of a lie, because they're certainly not always community wikis in the sense we're supposed to be using them.

  • If answers got neither upvotes or downvotes, how would you measure consensus at all? Other than by polling the comments, I mean. --I agree it's a tricky issue, which is why I think we should consider all angles. – CodeGnome Jun 10 '12 at 20:03
  • I'm not saying you couldn't upvote and downvote, I'm saying you wouldn't gain or lose reputation for either of those events. If you can't lose reputation, you shouldn't be able to gain it either. – animuson Jun 10 '12 at 20:04
  • "I'm not saying you couldn't upvote and downvote, I'm saying you wouldn't gain or lose reputation for either of those events." I like this, because one shouldn't gain or lose rep for an opinion. Since this would only apply to discussions, I'm giving it a +0.75 (I disagree with the community wiki part, but see your point of view regarding rep). – CodeGnome Jun 10 '12 at 20:15

I have to agree with animuson on this, but I'd like to expand it a little further. You are suggesting prohibiting downvotes on the discussion tag, but that defeats the purpose of reputation. Users should never be able to gain reputation without the fear of losing it. I propose a community wiki-ish style of doing things where downvotes as well as upvotes don't count for reputation.

I don't know if I completely agree with declaring them community wiki, because that suggests that the answer belongs to the whole community, which isn't necessarily the case. The answer, the entire idea, still belongs to the user that posted it (but I suppose it should be open to regular editing to keep up the quality the site demands)

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    The thing is that user who are worried about possible rep loss have the power to make their own answer CW now. They can even apply it after the downvotes start coming in. – dmckee Jun 11 '12 at 0:48

You have good reasoning for a terrible idea.

The SE Q&A system is not conducive for discussion. Indeed, I'm not sure that any up/down vote-based system is a good idea for actual discussion. It encourages people to vote based on what position they hold, rather than actually listening to well-reasoned arguments and possibly changing their mind.

There is no real way to determine victory in a discussion, or even just consensus on a topic. All you ever really get is who shouted loudest, who kept repeating their argument, who decided not to just give up and go elsewhere.

However, what you suggest is not helping. Even if you could get past the technical issues of a tag fundamentally changing the nature of how the site works, it's still terrible. Even if tagging questions were limited to moderators or something, it would still not actually solve the problem.

You aren't going to turn a Q&A engine into a discussion engine with a couple of tweaks. All you'll get is a crappy Q&A engine.

  • I agree with most of what you said, except for the implication that there's absolutely nothing to be done about it. I agree that the Q&A format is a poor discussion format; however, I disagree that the SO engine is in any way impacted by how we treat discussions on meta. If you don't like my suggestions, fair enough...but that shouldn't prevent people from trying to find a reasonable solution within the constraints of the system. – CodeGnome Jun 10 '12 at 23:32
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    @code I find that the best reasoned ideas and proposed solutions tend to get upvoted here in discussions. How this is bad, I cannot see. – Jeff Atwood Jun 11 '12 at 1:15
  • @JeffAtwood We're actually in agreement on the value of upvoting ideas and solutions. The question as posted has to do with downvoting answers to questions marked "discussion." The former builds consensus; the latter punishes people for opinions. This is a problem that is particular to the discussion tag, and not intended as a broader issue. – CodeGnome Jun 11 '12 at 1:56
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    @CodeGnome: Upvotes to answers on questions marked [discussion] reward people for opinions, completely out of proportion to the punishment of downvotes, which also express opinions and thus also build consensus. – Josh Caswell Jun 11 '12 at 2:09

I started writing this in a comment but I had too much to say:

I would up-vote for the quote, however, you're relying on quite a lot. (Yes I know it's always easy to find fault rather than look for positives, sorry about that.)

Firstly, I don't believe that you can forbid down-votes. It means that can never be removed. Better that down-votes mean nothing.

However, I still don't agree with this feature request; mainly because of the definition of discussion. To quote from dictionary.reference.com:

an act or instance of discussing; consideration or examination by argument, comment, etc., especially to explore solutions; informal debate.

Discussion implies dissenting opinion. If you forbid down-votes how do dissenting opinions get recorded and a comparison made between differing opinions? It can only be, fairly, achieved by a dissenting answer being posted. To be properly fair that answer would have to be equally argued and eloquent.

It's impossible to guarantee such a situation. Down-votes are a simple and easily understandable way of expressing opinion with a statement.

Don't forget that each up-vote is 10 reputation so you only need to get one up-vote for five down-votes in order to break-even. You shouldn't be worried about losing reputation by participating; unless you're Jeff denying the most up-voted feature request.

  • I think you're making the point, though: the current system doesn't encourage dissenting opinions, it encourages comments and downvotes--not the same thing at all. I'm not claiming I have a lock on the perfect solution; I'd actually love for one of the answers to provide an even better alternative. :) – CodeGnome Jun 10 '12 at 19:58
  • @CodeGnome, I'm making the point that the current system has made a dissenting opinion a mouse-click away whereas you're suggesting that someone has to come up an answer. It's possible for there to be only one suggestion; that people either agree or disagree with. Or possible no answers might be needed. We could all have up-voted and down-voted your question only and the final score would give an indication of the community's opinion. – ben is uǝq backwards Jun 10 '12 at 20:00
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    @Ben: And that's the point: an "opinion" that's nothing more than a downvote is worthless. Opinions need to be backed up by argument and facts. If you can't, if all you can do is say, "I don't like it," then you're not having a discussion. You're having a shouting match. Whoever yells the loudest is the one left standing. – Nicol Bolas Jun 10 '12 at 20:28
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    @NicolBolas And if someone has already written what I feel? Then the right thing to do is upvote the one who've echoed my sentiments, downvote those with whom I disagree and move on. Writing another text that just restates what my partisan's have already said would be silly. – dmckee Jun 11 '12 at 0:50
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    @dmckee: If you're trying to evaluate the quality of an argument, how many people agree and/or disagree with it is irrelevant. What matters is the content of the argument itself. If you feel that your opinions and argument have been properly represented by someone else's post, what good does up/down-voting do? – Nicol Bolas Jun 11 '12 at 0:58
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    @NicolBolas That is how you or I or Shog9 should evaluate the quality of an argument. How Meta.StackOverflow synthesizes the results of those many separate evaluations is by voting. And, yes, groups can be just as stupid and just as wrong as individuals, but it is what we've got. – dmckee Jun 11 '12 at 1:43

After listening to some feedback, I'd like to float the idea of having two separate tags:

  1. , where no one gains or loses rep for answers so that we can facilitate discussion--which doesn't really fit into the Q&A format in the first place, if you think about it.

  2. A new tag, where we would link to the discussion, and ask people to vote. An up or down vote would be about consensus, not rep, and it would separate discussion from consensus in a trackable way.

Again, I'd like to point out that I don't think there's a perfect answer; I just think we should consider all the angles and try to find something better than what we have now. Democracy is hard work. :)

  • Yeah, that sounds good. Auto-CW discussion questions. Problem solved. – Pëkka Jun 10 '12 at 22:15
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    I don't see the use of this "polling tag" at all. That's exactly what voting on the discussion posts does. – Ben Brocka Jun 11 '12 at 0:06
  • @Ben I guess the idea would be that the votes in those tags would not have any effect on your rep etc., which sounds sensible to me, even though I don't think rep loss is an actual problem (see above) – Pëkka Jun 11 '12 at 2:21

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