My Understanding of Downvotes and Upvotes

It was my understanding that using downvotes and upvotes was the right way to:

  • increase visibility of valid and high-quality answers,
  • decrease visibility of invalid or low-quality answers.

I also see downvotes as a temporary measure to encourage improvements. This attempts to decrease their visibility until then and forces their author to rework them. Ultimately, it "buries" them if the crowd so decides, and:

  • reduces noise (by pushing them down the thread until they get improved),
  • or even suppresses noise (by encouraging their original author to delete them if they know they won't rework them).

In the extreme case where that's not appropriate or not efficient, and where it would be warranted, flagging for moderator attention would be the other approach (extremely bad answers, spam, offensive content and other things that require immediate and radical action).

So, I occasionally add a -1 to a "useless" answer and notify its owner of my reasoning and request an improvement, sometime even mentioning that I'd gladly cancel or invert this downvote afterwards once they do improve their answer. By useless, I mean an answer of poor quality, or, most likely, not adding any value or no new information that would already listed by prior answers.

The Current Case Study

I just did on this SO question, to what seemed, at least to me, good effect. Hopefully this is something you can see that if you had high privileges or mod rights. A good answer was posted by Joachim Pileborg, and a few seconds later a nearly identical one appeared by Carl Norum. However it didn't provide, at the time, any added value.

So I upvoted the good and first one and downvotied the bad one (with an explaining for the downvote in a comment). Of course, this created a shift between the +1-rated answer and the -1-rated answer. As you can imagine, the +1 quickly became a +4. I gad explained my logic to the one I downvoted, and he kindly removed his answer.

This, to me, seemed a very good use of upvotes and downvotes, and the ideal resolution:

  • answers without value get deleted,
  • both downvoter and downvoter get their "downvotes" points back (I think? not even sure) as the answer gets deleted,
  • more votes for top answerer,
  • overall quality improves, yay!

And it seems to me like a very good approach, though it's mostly effective if done right at the time when questions are posted and first answers appear. The window of opportunity is very, very small. Afterwards, it is a bit harsh to request a deletion if there's a loss of points involved or an emotional attachment to an answer. Which brings me to another point, and sometimes makes me wonder if voting shouldn't be disallowed - or maybe allowed, but without showing the sum of the votes - for the 10 minutes following the posting. Thus early answers can be fleshed out and improved and it's not a game of "I was first, so the timeshift is in my favor" but of "my answer is actually better, even though I posted it shortly after". Which seems more fitting.


Apparently, using the above approach on that question I listed may have pissed off the person whose answer I downvoted (I hope not, and I cannot know for sure as Carl didn't reply afterwards), but it surely looks like I may have pissed off others who feel like I was an *ss for doing so.


I hereby ask confirmation on my behavior...

Mostly... Was what I did good or evil? Was I, essentially, really being an *ass? I don't mind looking like one to others, if I was right in the eye of the sites' maintainers and mods.


  • Could I have done it differently?
  • Is it a good use of downvotes and upvotes?
  • Would that "no total votes" or "no votes at all" "grace period" be a good idea to encourage this, and make it more fair for good questions to be upvoted and accepted, while sometimes the time shift plays in favor of slightly worse answers, just because first votes came upon them first and it biased next voters?

See also this meta-answer on P.SE (to a different question though) where I originally mentioned the same approach, which I rephrased above for clarity to get more feedback.

Update: So, the general consensus was that I was being an ass or misusing downvotes. Won't do that again and will leave more time before downvoting. Thanks to all for the interesting and constructive discussions.

  • 10
    If the second answer had appeared a long time after the first I would agree, but since it was a few seconds, we can reasonably expect that the second answerer was typing it simultaneously. In that case, there's no reason to punish a well intentioned poster just because they took a couple of seconds longer than somebody else. Upvote the first one by all means, but I would say you should just leave the other at 0, unless there is actually something wrong with it — it will still sink to the bottom. As I understand it, the point of downvotes is to flag a bad or incomplete answer, not a late one.
    – Dave
    Jun 9, 2013 at 22:36
  • 14
    A few seconds later? Jeez, tough crowd Jun 9, 2013 at 22:38
  • @Dave: yes, but I did say why I did the downvote, and I always revert them if they then later improve their answers with valuable additional info. However if they don't, then these answers are bad according to the site's rules, as they merely are duplicates. Isn't that so? And you say the other would sink to the bottom, but it's not necessarily true. Sometimes, by sheer luck of refreshes, the second posted answer gets the votes even though it was a few secs/mins later, and that doesn't feel right for the one who was first with the right answer.
    – haylem
    Jun 9, 2013 at 22:40
  • @LBT: :) tough crowd, tough love. In the end, if I look at that question now, what I see is a question with a good answer that's clearly accepted by both the OP and the community. If that hadn't been done, you'd have 2 similar answers. I think the reason why we (me included when that happens to me) is that we're not used to see downvotes as a hint to rework question. We have too much ego into our involvement.
    – haylem
    Jun 9, 2013 at 22:42
  • 7
    @haylem it's still, from the poster's point of view, a punishment. At best you'll end up "training" them to write quick, sloppy answers to be the first, at worst you'll discourage them from writing answers at all.
    – Dave
    Jun 9, 2013 at 22:43
  • @Dave: I don't know. On the other hand, the current system trained me and others to write quick sloppy answers and then rework them into better ones, because otherwise the first hitter catches the wave with a worse answer. Which doesn't seem good for the overall quality in a thread, and is then hard to overturn.
    – haylem
    Jun 9, 2013 at 22:44
  • 1
    @haylem well then all I can say is that I personally disagree!
    – Dave
    Jun 9, 2013 at 22:47
  • 1
    You down-vote if the answer is wrong, period, not if it "doesn't add any value". If it doesn't add value, then don't up-vote it, end of story. Jun 9, 2013 at 22:57
  • 1
    I also find it acceptable to downvote and delete answers that: 1) Duplicate an existing answer. 2) Adds nothing new. 3) Posted long after the original. ("long" here means long enough to where it's clearly not FGITW) Too often I see users posting dupe answers on popular questions just to farm votes. I've seen too many questions with 5 or 6 identical answers (sometimes outright plagiarized) all posted months after the question was asked.
    – Mysticial
    Jun 9, 2013 at 23:05
  • 1
    @Mysticial: good point, but this doesn't apply to the original poster's "current case study". Likely the down-voted answer was being created simultaneously with the accepted answer. Jun 9, 2013 at 23:09
  • 2
    @HovercraftFullOfEels Correct. The OP's case here fails at #3. So we're not disagreeing.
    – Mysticial
    Jun 9, 2013 at 23:11
  • 2
    Too lazy to find the link, but "votes on meta are different". They often express (dis)agreement, and I guess the downvotes here express disagreement with your stance that downvoting correct answers merely because somebody else typed a little faster is a good thing. Jun 9, 2013 at 23:23
  • 5
    @haylem I downvoted this because I disagree with the idea of a quick duplicate answer deserves a downvote (so much so that I would downvote multiple times if possible). 2 or 3 answers within a close time (a few seconds to a couple of minutes could easily have been typed at the same time). Others have said it, but this practice only encourages people to post quick sloppy answers, just to get in first. 2 similar answers doesn't harm the site at all, so there is no reason to be so hard on someone who is just a bit slower... Jun 9, 2013 at 23:59
  • 3
    Don't forget that deletes can contribute to a ban, so encouraging people to delete quick duplicates by downvoting might unintentionally pushing them towards an answer ban. Jun 9, 2013 at 23:59
  • 1
    @haylem it is not likely for someone posting good content, but there is an algorithm that will impose a ban on someone who is continually posting bad content (either questions or answers). The criteria are secret, but it is widely assumed that deleted and downvoted content helps contributes to the ban. Jun 10, 2013 at 0:04

4 Answers 4


The general idea in these situations is to just plain use common sense and to assume that people here posting answers to questions are doing so because they intrinsically care about providing value to others by sharing their knowledge and experience in solving problems.

If we take the Theory X style management approach and assume that people are here for bad reasons, everyone loses. But the Theory Y style approach assumes that knowledge workers are intrinsically motivated to do the best they can. Sure, we all love the badges and the reputation and the ability to unlock privileges that give us the ability to help in other ways on the site, but for many, especially users with reputation in the top percentages, the reputation is of little importance.

Thus, when Carl posts his answer it's because he loves programming and software development so much that he chooses to volunteer his time to help others solve problems. Sometimes we end up posting duplicate answers by accident, due to the fact that there are 5.5 million visitors per day on Stack Overflow and the chances that two people post very similar content is quite high.

While maintaining high standards is important, we must also consider the human factor, as that is what drives people like Carl -- the feeling of satisfaction one derives from helping others. An extra answer on a Stack Overflow post is hardly an exceptional circumstance that would bring this community to a grinding halt; thus, as Hovercraft mentions, just ignore the post and move on.

With that said, we don't want people to abuse the system. If it's clear that someone has a track record of posting duplicate answers for the sake of increasing their score, then perhaps that may be worth a second look. But we should never assume people are doing this. It will be obvious if they are because most people who do this first, aren't very smart about it and second, they don't usually put a lot of effort into their answers, which means you'll see a string of low quality one-liner posts.

Just keep in mind what the tooltips say on the upvote and downvote buttons.

  • Up: This answer is useful
  • Down: This answer is not useful.

And keep in mind that, although two posts may effectively have the same meaning, it's quite possible that the way the other is worded may help a future visitor more quickly understand whatever it is they were confused about. That's why we don't downvote correct answers. :) Hope this helps!

As an aside, I oftentimes volunteer to expand my answers if I see that they repeat something someone else said, regardless of who posted first. This is just something I personally like to do to be more helpful, but I'd hardly say it's required. Just lead by example, and the users with the most potential to be awesome will follow your lead.

  • Maybe the tooltip should be "this answer is not (not) useful on its own". Though I'm not sure the distinction would be clear for most people... Thanks for your feedback. I understand the importance of the human factor. I was under the impression that we were trying to train people a bit to behave in a certain way of SE sites though, and to control some of these human aspects (like ego) and to encourage others (creative criticism). But maybe it's a bit too much to expect, especially on first-timers or new users, and that'd be too deterrent. Seems good indeed.
    – haylem
    Jun 10, 2013 at 0:05
  • And in all honesty, even though I asked for this particular question, I don't systematically use the approach I mentioned above. For one thing it'd take too much effort, but also I think things work fine as they are. But when I see the potential for this early arbitrage, I've never seen it fail. I was just afraid of rubbing things people the wrong way though (and apparently I did), hence my request for comments and confirmation.
    – haylem
    Jun 10, 2013 at 0:07
  • 1
    I think if you had left a comment, that would have been fine. I personally have no problem with people encouraging others to do the best they can, but if their target is already doing good -- or trying to do good -- and he/she did provide value, we shouldn't use downvotes. As you mentioned in your original post, downvotes can be used as a tool to spring others into action, but they should only be used when content is actively harmful if it's not improved. It's good you want to improve things, and I hope this helps. :)
    – jmort253
    Jun 10, 2013 at 0:15
  • as mentioned, I did use a comment and mention my intent to cancel or even invert the downvote (and I'm not sure the answer's author took it badly, but for sure someone else took offense). But I understand your (and others') point: just making it clear the question needs improvement with a comment is less aggressive, and less demotivational.
    – haylem
    Jun 10, 2013 at 0:24
  • though it still leaves the door open for the later answer to grab the lead unfairly... I still think a delay in the visibility of total votes during the early life of a question would solve all of these issues at once.
    – haylem
    Jun 10, 2013 at 0:27
  • 2
    A delay would introduce more problems, like it not being immediately clear to an asker that a post is harmful. Also, as for answers grabbing the lead unfairly, I don't think that's really a problem that matters all that much, at least not in the grand scheme of things. Sure, I've occasionally posted an answer first that isn't the most upvoted, but in many cases I do have the top answer simply because I did take the time to expand my answer. I don't lose much sleep over the answers that didn't get upvoted to the top, and neither should anyone else. :) Just move on and keep providing value.
    – jmort253
    Jun 10, 2013 at 0:44
  • 1
    I do, don't worry (move on, not lose sleep). I've been here a while :) But I don't want to use the tools given to me in the wrong, so that's why I ask.
    – haylem
    Jun 10, 2013 at 0:46

You down-vote if the answer is wrong, and particularly if it may be misleading, but not if it "doesn't add any value". If it doesn't add value, then simply don't up-vote it. I don't like to think of down-votes as for "punishing bad ones", but rather for alerting the original poster that this particular answer should not be followed.

For a much better written answer to a similar question, please read Jon Skeet's answer here.

  • In this case it's not even to "punish bad ones" though, more to alert them as well. But I see your point. Thanks.
    – haylem
    Jun 9, 2013 at 23:09
  • Right, I just saw that I actually wrote "punish bad ones" in my question! Sorry about that, that's not really how I meant it. That may have colored my post a bit too much right from the start...
    – haylem
    Jun 9, 2013 at 23:19
  • I reworked the question a bit to address that.
    – haylem
    Jun 9, 2013 at 23:27
  • That John Skeet answer is indeed a pretty good one. Though in the end, I guess that as rulings are done by mods and admins, it's their views that are the most relevant (until the next round of them are elected or hired, as with governments).
    – haylem
    Jun 10, 2013 at 0:37
  • 1
    And the sad thing is that, in the end, and despite John's amazing post, his open-ended request for ruling at the end wasn't answered by a definitely authority either... There are more links in his answer's comments, and the one that was converted to question in its own right doesn't have a definite answer (meta.stackexchange.com/questions/2451/…).
    – haylem
    Jun 10, 2013 at 0:40

If I see downvotes on an answer that has a non negative score, I usually take this as an indicator of a subtle mistake or error, which may or may not be elaborated on in the comments. Alternatively, the answer might be obsolete, or sub optimal. To summarise, a downvote (at least on SO) most commonly means "Don't do/use this".

Usually, I will re-read the answer more carefully, or avoid it in favor of a more highly voted answer (if one exists). I suspect a not-so-small number of users on SO use the downvote metric similarly.

Unless you plan to post your lengthy explanation in comments each time, downvoting an entirely correct answer might raise confusion and doubts regarding the approach being advocated, which in itself outweighs any benefits you see here (I fundamentally disagree there are any benefits at all, but that is another issue).


As you can see from my comments, I have specific objections to some of the criteria you have used to judge what is downvote worthy. I'm not going to rehash that here as other answers cover that quite well, but if you want to positively contribute to the site you have to stop thinking of downvotes as punitive measures to punish community members or tools to get them to perform specific actions (namely deleting a post).

Don't forget that deletes can contribute to a ban, so encouraging people to delete quick duplicates by downvoting might unintentionally push them towards an answer ban.

In the end, only you can decide what criteria you will use to judge posts, and it is entirely your right to vote however you see fit. Is the answer clearly wrong - please downvote. Does the answer encourage bad practices? Do you dislike someone's name, their coding style, or think they smell bad, go ahead and downvote them as you desire.

But I strongly encourage you to consider the impact of your votes beyond just yourself and the person you downvoted. The simple fact is voting (both upvotes and downvotes) is only designed to relate how useful the community finds a specific answer, nothing more. The other benefits (reputation and the associated privileges) are just fringe benefits to provide incentive to the community to help contribute.

Imagine being a new programmer who comes to the site and sees 2 almost identical answers, one has a few upvotes and one has a single downvote. How is this supposed to help me? Is this solution good or bad? He/she doesn't care about rep-whoring or how far apart the answers were posted, he/she just wants an answer to his problem.

The point is you need to consider others who will read the question in the future and use the upvotes/downvotes to help decide if an answer will solve their problem.

  • stop thinking of downvotes as punitive measures to punish community members: I don't really. I just badly phrased that and reworked it afterwards.
    – haylem
    Jun 10, 2013 at 0:42
  • Do you dislike someone's name, their coding style, or think they smell bad, go ahead and downvote them. I'm not that petty :)
    – haylem
    Jun 10, 2013 at 0:42
  • But I strongly encourage you to consider the impact of your votes beyond just yourself and the person you downvoted. I did and do. I apparently was wrong in my conclusion on the impact, but don't assume that wasn't my approach. I was considering them in terms of pushing for better quality. This wasn't ill-intentioned. Ill-advised, maybe so, and I'm sorry for that.
    – haylem
    Jun 10, 2013 at 0:43
  • Imagine being a new programmer who comes to the site and sees 2 almost identical answers, one has a few upvotes and one has a single downvote. That's my point. They shouldn't see that, as the answer should be deleted if it doesn't have added value. That seems even better to me. Of course they don't care about repwhoring (which never was a point in this debate) or about timing (which they wouldn't really look at).
    – haylem
    Jun 10, 2013 at 0:45
  • 2
    @haylem - Just keep in perspective that the problem Stack Overflow solves is that we -- as people looking for answers to problems we face -- don't need to search an entire forum thread just to find the answer buried on page 14 of 29, 3/4 of the way down the page, after painstakingly reading each and every 'me too' post beforehand. Could the second SO answer be deleted, sure. But is it worth alienating our volunteers when the correct answer is still right there at the top of the page? Probably not. ;)
    – jmort253
    Jun 10, 2013 at 0:49
  • @jmort253: yes, and it surely already works pretty well that way. But while "perfect is the enemy of good" and there may not be a need to fuss too much on getting each thread to look perfect and canonically edited and "curated", I think it would be be bad to just tell ourselves "we do it so much better than other systems, our job here is over". It's true that there are already way too many things that can put people off when they visit SO though, so maybe there's no reason to add alcohol to the fire...
    – haylem
    Jun 10, 2013 at 0:55
  • 1
    I think the auto-ban point you brought up was very important as well. Would you mind including that in your answer?
    – user200500
    Jun 10, 2013 at 1:35

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