I understand the purpose of up/downvoting answers -- some answers are better than others, some answers may be wrong, .etc. With regard to questions, though, there are other mechanisms to deal with "bad" questions: comments, close, flag. A poorly written question should be improved. A bad question should be closed/deleted.

Often, though I see poorly written questions downvoted. I'm not sure what this accomplishes. I get loss of rep for offensive or spam questions, but for an off-topic question? or one that is just poorly written? Why?

It seems to me that rep ought to be based more on answers on a site of this type. Fundamentally, it seems that rep ought to be based on what you add to the site, not what you ask of it. A particularly good question does add to the site, but a poor question doesn't really detract from it in the same way that a bad (wrong) answer does. Sure, go ahead and give people more rep for asking a particularly good question, but why punish people for asking bad questions when there are other ways of handling that.

Why not handle questions more like comments and allow upvotes, but not downvotes? It seems to me that many, if not most, of the downvoted questions are first timers. It's more likely that your first introduction to the site will be in asking a question, rather than answering. There is a significant risk to alienating new users when their questions are downvoted -- there's a visceral response to seeing that negative number next to your question. Why not let the close/flag system weed out questions that don't belong and the comment system work to improve poorly worded questions.

  • @tvanfosson I see your point, if the question isn't clear it can be edited, if its not useful then it should be closed. In regards to the accepted answer, we need to think of how someone is accessing the question. For example, if they stumbled upon the question via google, how can you say its not worth their time to read? It has to be somewhat similar to what they are looking for. Because of the editing capabilities on SO, I rarely see a question thats unclear....misguided maybe, but rarely unclear. LOL I just saw this question is a year old. sorry.
    – Locutus
    Commented Apr 29, 2010 at 20:36

9 Answers 9


Voting on questions serves a very similar purpose to voting on answers: it provides a visible hint to other readers. Chances are, a heavily down-voted question or answer is not worth the time to read, while one with up-votes might well be worth a look. Even more: since August 2010, downvotes also feed the automated Sorry, we are no longer accepting questions from this account, to filter out low quality questions.

If I have a question and I'm searching for an answer, I want to find an existing question that asks this question (and has good answers for it). I don't want a question that was unclear, because chances are the answers will be similarly unhelpful. Not necessarily - but if there are two questions that match my search, then the one that made it easy to provide a good answer is the one I want to read first.

This is why sympathy votes irritate me - they skew the rating of a question or answer away from the intended "who found this useful / unhelpful" scale.

  • 3
    Jeff Atwood has since said that sympathy upvotes don't actually happen. Commented Jun 28, 2011 at 11:18
  • 14
    @Andrew: I know it happens because some people actually admit to it ("+1 to make up for the downvote", etc.). However, data seems to indicate it isn't much of a problem.
    – Shog9
    Commented Jun 28, 2011 at 15:27
  • 1
    +1 to make up for downvote [that I dont agree with] isnt the same as +1 to make up for downvote [because although this question is terrible I dont want you to be upset] Commented Jul 9, 2013 at 7:58
  • @Shog9 If we treated flag/vote-to-close as an implicit downvote, would you still feel the need for being able to separately downvote questions (e.g. ease-of-use and retaining anonymity)? Commented Aug 28, 2013 at 16:19
  • While this gives the rationale, it doesn't address the problems highlighted in the question. Down votes don't help improve the question being asked, because they don't indicate the problems with it. Maybe 5 down votes should automatically place your question on hold? A maybe even less? Commented Sep 20, 2014 at 13:59
  • +1 one for the 'sympathy votes'. I understand your frustration. Related is the phenomenon of 'dogpile votes', downvoting -5 stuff just because other people downvoted (Why downvote at all when something is at -5, I mean, isn't it clear that this stuff is bad?) Commented Mar 23, 2018 at 10:02

As the tooltip for the down vote button says:

This question does not show any research effort; it is unclear or not useful.

I think that really is the only criteria we need.

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    +1 because I had never actually bothered to read the tooltip ever before.
    – TheTXI
    Commented Jul 2, 2009 at 15:40
  • 1
    @TheTXI: It is amazing how many people don't read them and how many disputes could be cleared up if they did read them.
    Commented Jul 2, 2009 at 15:43
  • My point is that it doesn't serve the same purpose as that for answers and should be handled differently, not what criteria should people use to apply downvotes.
    – tvanfosson
    Commented Jul 2, 2009 at 15:49
  • @tvan: And it has a different tooltip. If you follow that tooltip as guidance, the votes will be used differently as well.
    Commented Jul 2, 2009 at 15:50
  • 1
    The tooltip I see is "This answer is not helpful (click again to undo)"
    – Scottie T
    Commented Jul 2, 2009 at 18:31
  • +1. Says it all, on the spot, up to the user to judge. Vote count is a linear scale attempting to capture a whole range of quality issues, including clarity, correctness & relevance. Couldn't possibly have separate scales for all of them.
    – user95071
    Commented Jul 2, 2009 at 18:42
  • Also important to downvote stuff that is not useful because it is factually false! Commented Mar 23, 2018 at 10:03

Maybe you should stop thinking about downvotes as punishment. It's more a quality assurance.

  • 1
    ++Short & sweet.
    – Shog9
    Commented Jul 2, 2009 at 17:08
  • 4
    People react to them that way. I don't think it's just me.
    – tvanfosson
    Commented Jul 2, 2009 at 19:27
  • 8
    @tvanfosson: Yes, I know. Stop doing it. That's my point. Commented Jul 2, 2009 at 20:04
  • 3
    it is punishment because it takes away from the person's reputation more than it takes away from the person casting the downvote.
    – Not me
    Commented Jul 5, 2009 at 6:51
  • 1
    @Not me: With that argument you can say, it is not fair. But punishment? No one wants to punish you by downvoting. Bad behaviour is punished. Here only bad quality should be made visible. Free your mind, don't take it too serious and never take it personally. Commented Jul 5, 2009 at 16:12
  • 1
    It is punishment. Because the OP doesn't know that it isn't. Commented Jul 9, 2013 at 4:55

Not everybody has the ability to vote to close a question, so voting down a question is often times their way of expressing "this is a bad question and does not belong".

Also, it is common to vote down questions that need lots of work in terms of having horrible sentence structure and are basically unreadable.

It can best be summed up with the idea that there are as many reasons for voting down a question as there are people who vote them down.

  • 2
    It only takes 50 rep to comment, but 100 rep to vote down. Anyone who can downvote could leave a comment instead to express their opinion. Truly bad questions are closed pretty quickly and comments have more chance of improving a question than a downvote.
    – tvanfosson
    Commented Jul 2, 2009 at 15:44
  • @tvan: And that would defeat the idea of a voting system which is what the site was based on. Not to mention revenge downvoting and such.
    Commented Jul 2, 2009 at 15:46
  • "Not everybody has the ability to vote to close a question". But everyone can flag. Can be quicker to, as mods can close instantly Commented Mar 23, 2018 at 10:03

I must confess that I'm drawn into questions already voted down to -3 and lower because they promise strange wording and astonishing ignorance to concept of SO and usage.

Admit it: You won't skip a post with a substantial low score because it's not worth reading.

Okay, I confess that the true reason is aiming for the reversal badge.

The extened options to flag low quality questions make loosing some of your own rep by downvoting less attractive. And there's no point in downvoting posts of unregistered users with a twitter-bred attention span.


Since my question has been rightfully marked as duplicate, I will copy-paste elements here as an answer. Because despite being originally a question, it provides details on why do I personally think downvoting questions is harmful, including psychological aspects, and including the lack of information in the about page and FAQ. For those who have already read my previous question, you can skip everything but the last paragraph, which is new.

My personal conclusion is that downvoting questions makes the Internet a worst place, without any benefit for the SE websites, their users, or any random visitor. My rationale is the following:

  1. Votes on questions don't affect ranking: While the votes on answers change the order in which they appear, a question always stays on top (obviously, since it is the only one). In addition, AFAIK (correct me if I'm wrong), it doesn't affect their ranking in search results, either internally in SO or externally in Google ranking.

  2. Off-topic questions have to be closed (hum... on hold), not downvoted: There is already a process to handle questions that do not belong to SO, and this process is not downvoting, it is closing. Downvoting is only used for, according to the tooltip, questions which do not show research effort, are unclear, or not useful.

  3. Usefulness of question is hard to evaluate: While being clear and showing research effort can be objectively evaluated (well, even being clear is pretty subjective, you can find a question unclear only because you are not familiar with the technology), being useful is seriously something you can't evaluate. How can one pretend somebody else won't have the same question? The fact that already one person had this question makes it fact likely that another person can have the same question. And even if it is not useful, how could the OP possibly know? When you don't know (and the OP doesn't know, otherwise it would not have asked the question in the first place), you have no idea if it is just a stupid silly missing semi-colon, or a more in-depth issue that may be useful to somebody else. Hence, sanctioning the OP with a downvote for "not useful" is both rude and hard to justify. Thus, so far, only downvoting for not clear and no research effort makes sense. For the following, I use "bad question" to designate a on-topic question, but unclear or not showing research effort.

  4. Downvoting a bad question does not make it better: only a comment or edit does. Then, downvoting is not beneficial to SO in a content perspective.

  5. Downvoting a bad question increases its chances to be incorrectly closed: often, I see bad (mostly unclear) questions being closed solely because the negative counts attracts compulsive closers, while the question was not unclear to me, and I would have otherwise proposed an answer. (In this cases, I shortly answer as a comment...)

  6. Good questions are already encouraged: A good question is both "rep-encouraged" (a good question gets upvotes and increase rep), and "naturally encouraged" (even without rep, a good question is more likely to get a good answer).

  7. Bad questions don't have to be "rep-discouraged": One may argue that downvoting makes one lose rep, and hence allowing to downvote questions discourages asking bad questions. This is redundant, since anyway asking bad questions is already naturally discouraged by the fact the OP won't get good answers to bad questions. Note: the difference between encouraging a behavior and discouraging the opposite behavior is subtle but exists. In the case of answers, we want both to encourage good answers (of course), but also to discourage bad answers, since they are harmful for the OP, but would be encouraged otherwise since they would potentially accumulate rep, and are not "naturally discouraged" (Hence, there would be nothing to lose to post a bad answer if the downvote system didn't exist).

But despite this apparent uselessness, I do see a very harmful downside: potentially hurting psychologically the OP, and eventually turning them away from SO. Not only this is not beneficial, but is harmful both for the OP, in a human point of view, and for SE, in a business point of view. Why is this? Even though, ideally, a downvote would tell the OP: "a member feels that your question is unclear or does not show research effort, and suggests you improve it", the OP is not aware that this is the intended message. Only experienced users know, but anyway experienced users do not post bad questions (well, I hope so ;-)). Proof: this intended message is not written anywhere in the about page or even the FAQ.:

  • The about page does not mention voting up or down questions.

  • The FAQ extensively discusses what are off-topic questions, but does not describe what is a bad question (on-topic). It merely gives advice about how to ask a good question, but never specifies you will be downvoted if you do not follow the advice. Specifically, I haven't found (maybe I am blind) a section explaining In which case should I downvote a question? (for voters), and What does it mean when someone downvotes a question? What should I do about it? (for OP).

Then, the only information about this is on the tooltip that appears when you let your mouse hover on the down arrow, which I don't expect a new user to do (seriously, do you expect new users to hover and wait 5sec on any interface element before asking his first question?), and even if he did, it still isn't clear about the intended message. Then, when receiving a downvote, the only solution for the OP is to guess what does it mean. Personally, I would guess something like: "Your question s#$!#, you n00bs, stop programming now, you don't deserve our help". And none of us can be aware of who is the OP, what is his life, is he fluent in English, did he actually try hard to start programming by his own, to ask the question, how important is it for him, and is he psychologically fragile or not?

The accepted answer here states that the benefit is that it provides a visible hint. Actually, it only provides a better visible hint, since a hint is already given by good questions having a "more positive" score. So SO allowing downvotes implies this increased visible hint is worth the psychological harm caused to users. I personally think it is not worth it, but that is up to the developers, and the SO community, to decide.

  • 7
    #1 is incorrect - question score does affect the rank in internal searches, and can cause questions to drop off of the front page and alter the rank in some other lists. #2 is irrelevant, since that is explicitly not the purpose of voting. #3 is clearly wrong if you've ever landed on a question while searching only to find that the problem described in the title does not actually match the problem faced by the asker. #4 isn't really the point either. #5 I'm not convinced is a bad thing. #6 is definitely not a bad thing. #7 ... Well, too many down-voted questions and you can't ask more.
    – Shog9
    Commented Jul 9, 2013 at 5:19
  • Regarding the rest: at this point, I do not expect new users to read anything... Nevertheless, some do, and benefit mightily from it. I would prefer to cater to that minority than chase after the wind by writing more text to be unread. This is not a support group. This is a place for people with real problems to find others with solutions to those problems - if you cannot or will not be bothered to learn, then why should anyone bother to teach you?
    – Shog9
    Commented Jul 9, 2013 at 5:23
  • 1
    @Shog9. Thx for the comments. "why should anyone bother to teach you?". I do agree. But in this case, not answering is enough. Down voting is just being mean, for free. And maybe some people would still like to teach the OP, for obscure reasons. Commented Jul 9, 2013 at 5:26
  • 1
    Then they are free to do so, @Boris. Everyone gets their own opportunity to answer, and their own votes in generous supply to cast as they see fit.
    – Shog9
    Commented Jul 9, 2013 at 5:27
  • @Shog9 And this is what I have decided to do :-). But I thought it was important to raise this concern to others. We shouldn't use the online pretext to do things we won't do IRL. If someone asks me a noob question that I think he should have been able to answer by himself, I don't insult him. Either I do answer if it takes seconds, or I escape the question with tact if I can and the answer is long. In SO, it is easy to escape, so just doing so is enough. No need to insult in addition (doesn't matter if we think downvoting is not an insult, for sure this is how the OP perceives it). Commented Jul 9, 2013 at 5:36
  • 3
    I agree - there's never a good reason to be intentionally insulting. That said, you must remember that these are not personal conversations (although they can certainly contain such conversations) - unlike an old-style forum, where a question disappears into the archives, questions here are often referenced and read for years after the original asker is long gone. Voting is - first and foremost - a service to these future readers, who often must search and sift through a tremendous amount of data to find the answer they need.
    – Shog9
    Commented Jul 9, 2013 at 5:39
  • 1
    @Shog9 Again, I agree with this. But the main issue here is that the OP is not aware of what you said in your above comment. I would suggest at least making this clear in the about page, otherwise OP do feel personally insulted. Commented Jul 9, 2013 at 5:43
  • 4
    That sounds like a separate feature-request...
    – Shog9
    Commented Jul 9, 2013 at 5:44
  • @Shog9 Did it :-) Commented Jul 9, 2013 at 6:13

Good point. I mean, considering the fact we can vote-close a particular question...what good is there in down-voting it? The only types of questions I down-vote / close-vote are typically spam-ish in nature. Or, if the author uses inappropriate language/etc I may down-vote / close-vote too.

Then again...down-voting a question leaves a mark on the authors reputation. This isn't the case with vote-closing a question (or atleast I don't think it is). If a user is abusing the system via questions (commercial in nature, "How can you NOT want x-gadget") voting their question closed won't really discourage that type of behavior.

So perhaps down-voting questions is a good thing after all.

  • 3
    You may be able to vote for closure, but as TheTXI states not all users will have enough rep for this.
    – ChrisF Mod
    Commented Jul 2, 2009 at 15:34
  • @ChrisF But again, all users can bother mods with it. Commented Mar 23, 2018 at 10:04

If we subscribe to the downvoting as punishment way of thinking then downvoting is the way to handle inappropriate questions, whatever their inappropriateness might be (offensive, stupid, badly written).

If we subscribe to the downvoting as marking useless questions, then downvoting would be a way to handle spam mostly (or utterly incomprehensible questions, maybe).

According to this totally unscientific poll (well, not even a poll), around half of the population subscribes to the downvoting as punishment way of thinking.

Another relevant point is that not everyone can vote to close, so they'll vent up the frustration via a downvote.

EDIT: After the discussion below I've come to think that the real value of downvoting questions is to help people discriminate and let them have the chance not to read uncomprehensible or otherwise awful questions until they've been fixed. As always, downvote with a comment (even if you get serially downvoted for it).

  • Best way to handle spam is flag that thing as spam. 6 votes = -100 rep.
    – TheTXI
    Commented Jul 2, 2009 at 15:36
  • 2
    Vote for spam + downvote = -112 rep.
    – Vinko Vrsalovic StaffMod
    Commented Jul 2, 2009 at 15:40
  • Also, if you are a spammer you will hardly care about rep, it's better to relieve people from the nuisance by letting the question have a negative value.
    – Vinko Vrsalovic StaffMod
    Commented Jul 2, 2009 at 15:43
  • 1
    Vinko: That is true, but if I am going to flag for spam, it should already cast a downvote automatically if I am not mistaken, plus it won't charge me any rep for the flag as opposed to the -1 for giving him -2. I don't want to bother wasting my rep for obvious spam questions.
    – TheTXI
    Commented Jul 2, 2009 at 15:43
  • I'd be ok with leaving the behavior of a flag giving a downvote. I just don't see the point of "here, let me help you make your question better by letting you know that I don't like it with a downvote."
    – tvanfosson
    Commented Jul 2, 2009 at 15:54
  • 1
    That argument is exactly applicable to answers as well... it's just that answers might be more actively harmful than questions, but, as you can put anything in a question (such as sample code, arguments, ways of doing things as examples, etc.) questions can be harmful as well.
    – Vinko Vrsalovic StaffMod
    Commented Jul 2, 2009 at 15:58
  • @Vinko: good point. I'm thinking specifically of questions asking for help doing... bad things to users. Strictly speaking, they may be on-topic and such, but it's worth visibly flagging them as unwise!
    – Shog9
    Commented Jul 2, 2009 at 16:52
  • @vinko -- negative rep. this is why I have start deleting answers that get a downvote before an upvote. Why have an answer that is just lowering my rep? Sure someone may come along and cast an upvote ... but why bother?
    – Not me
    Commented Jul 5, 2009 at 7:26

I agree with OP. I have seen so many smart, intelligent but not very well-worded questions be downvoted or closed as not constructive. But just because the question doesn't pass a test of English grammar doesn't mean it won't be useful to other learners. It leads me to think that there are either many people on Stack Overflow with a limited knowledge of computer science and programming who actively downvote questions they can't understand or a surplus of highly knowledgeable programmers who insist on precision in everything including questions.

I recently saw this question downvoted: "What is the difference between 'procedure' and 'function' in Ada?" This is an excellent question for beginners to the Ada language. Procedure works like void Foo() in C/C++, where nothing is returned while function works like int Foo() where you input some values and get a value in return. This was a great question and I was sorry to see it voted down since the answer helped me immensely.

  • I don't see how this relates to the question. -1 (:^) Commented Mar 23, 2018 at 10:04
  • Also, vote to close is correct procedure, as the question should be improved such that the content is clear (this is the purpose of closing questions and reopening) Commented Mar 23, 2018 at 10:05

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