In the answers and comments to this question the idea of discouraging the pity upvotes that awful questions usually get has been mentioned more than once, but, as it is tangential to the issue discussed there I wanted to move it here.

So, three things:

  1. Do we want discourage pity upvoting?
  2. If we want to, how could that be achieved?
  3. Should we encourage closing of awful questions? How?

Various considerations:

  • If we managed to effectively discourage pity upvoting then lousy questioners would have a harder time getting reputation.
  • If less people upvote unnecessarily, less people follow suit upvoting (the train effect which has been documented somewhere around here) and may even increase the percentage of closing that kind of questions get.
  • The system would be more fair.
  • It may not be doable in a practical way.
  • It may not be worth it as it's not a big deal.
  • In the end, it will get sorted out by the community.

4 Answers 4


The way to avoid pity upvotes is not to downvote for no reason. The way I see it: either a question needs to be closed/deleted or it doesn't. A lot of people seem to downvote questions that need to be closed. Why bother? If it's spam you can flag it for moderator attention. Otherwise let it be closed and possibly deleted in due course.

If it's a valid question and for whatever reason you just don't like it, your downvote has a reasonable chance of attracting an upvote.

I know I've seen plenty of questions downvoted that were simply poorly worded or formatted and a simple edit would fix them.

Perhaps we should be asking: if the question doesn't need to be closed, why are you downvoting it?

  • 1
    Spot on. But, how to do it?
    – Vinko Vrsalovic StaffMod
    Sep 8, 2009 at 5:31
  • Are you saying that there is no legitimate reason to ever downvote a question?
    – innaM
    Sep 8, 2009 at 6:08
  • There is one valid reason to downvote: "This question is unclear and not helpful". (Of course I won't downvote a question about PHP just because I never use PHP so it is not useful at all to me, but that's the line between getting a sensible meaning out of a sentence and being a jerk.) Sep 8, 2009 at 6:26
  • @Manni: basically votes on answers make sense because it changes the relative ordering and helps identify the best answer. But what does voting on questions mean? Not a lot and that's what's happened. So I don't think there's much reason to downvote a question just like I don't think there's much reason to upvote them (unless they're exceptional in some way).
    – cletus
    Sep 8, 2009 at 6:31
  • Fair enough. I don't see any reasons to vote on questions either. I just thought I was the only one.
    – innaM
    Sep 9, 2009 at 12:22
  • 1
    There was a time when closing worked rather well for this purpose, but that changed drastically with the introduction of "vote-to-close". We get only 12 close votes a day, and it takes 5 users voting to close a question. Down votes are both more plentiful, and take effect immediately - and they can be withdrawn if the author comes back and turns the question around in response to comments.
    – Shog9
    Sep 10, 2009 at 15:10

What is going to constitute an "invalid" up-vote?

There is always going to be an element of counter-culture in a group. If you express that something is bad, there will always be someone to say "oh, it's not as bad as that." So you down-vote, they up-vote. That is the way of things.

So you want to pick out when votes are "valid" expressions of someone's opinion? Some voters have different motivations. The idea that you are going to somehow tell the differnece is folly and dangerous.

But, don't panic. Stack Overflow has a large population of voters. In the end, the overall vote will reflect the substance and quality of the content. There's no need to somehow filter out the small amount of noise in either up-votes or down-votes.

  • 1
    You (and your upvoters) totally missed the point. The idea I'm subjecting to public evaluation is not to detect and somehow establish if a particular vote is invalid, but rather if it would be worth it to implement some popup with a motivating message or another motivator along those lines to discourage the unwanted votes. I repeat, discourage, not prohibit nor judge if a particular vote is or not 'valid'.
    – Vinko Vrsalovic StaffMod
    Sep 8, 2009 at 6:23
  • 1
    @Vinko Vrsalovic - "discourage unwanted votes" does equal "judge if a particular vote is or is not valid" ... I don't think I missed the point at all. Sep 8, 2009 at 14:18
  • 2
    Last thought - Voting is not a contest for someone to pick the "correct" answer. It's someone expressing their opinion, whatever that may be. Sep 8, 2009 at 14:35
  • 1
    @rcartaino: Nope, the two things are not at all equal. One thing is to have the application suggest how to vote according to the rules set by the creators of the site and the community (encouragement to follow the rules, or discouragement to disregard the rules) and a totally different thing is to pick and tell 'this particular vote is invalid because a and b and then invalidate it'. Crucial difference is suggestions versus enforcement. (Regardless of the fact that the voting patterns script does invalidate votes based on a and b.)
    – Vinko Vrsalovic StaffMod
    Sep 8, 2009 at 15:44
  • 1
    You may disagree that pity votes are undesirable, and I can totally agree with that. In fact that's the idea of the question, to gauge the community's feel about the issue, but equating suggestion to enforcement just seems wrong.
    – Vinko Vrsalovic StaffMod
    Sep 8, 2009 at 15:46
  • 1
    In fact, "So you want to pick out when votes are "valid" expressions of someone's opinion?" =/=> "I want to pick out which voting expressions are "desired" by the community" If the community desires any voting expression, so be it. I take it this is your view.
    – Vinko Vrsalovic StaffMod
    Sep 8, 2009 at 15:51
  • So how do we make suggestions? I'd guess that the sort of person who'd upvote bad questions won't read suggestions. Joel Spolsky advocated writing software on the assumption that the user won't read anything. Sep 10, 2009 at 20:16
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    One thing is to design on that assumption, and another thing is not making any suggestion. Haven't you noticed SO is filled with suggestions? They probably work. I also disagree that pity upvoters are the people who don't read suggestions.
    – Vinko Vrsalovic StaffMod
    Sep 11, 2009 at 0:13

As one possible means to address this, I'm going to repeat (slightly paraphrased) an answer I gave to another question along similar lines.

One way to mitigate this would be to show upvotes and downvotes separately, as suggested in this feature request. That would allow people to see when someone has earned decent rep from an answer (or question) that otherwise appears to have a small vote total, and use that in the decision of whether to cast their own vote or not.

I always remember that my votes are limited, and information like this could be of great use in my decision-making process. I might be less inclined to spend a "pity vote" on someone who's already earned, say 24 rep (+30, -6) just to get them from showing -1 to 0.

Also, I'd like to add that this information is already available, if you care to browse to the OP's user profile and view their reputation tab. So it's not confidential. I just think having it more obvious could help the voting process work more effectively, particularly in cases like these.

Oh, and to get this done I'd advocate denormalizing upvote/downvote data as cletus suggested in response to Jeff's answer so that this isn't an undue strain on the database.


I think the community already frowns upon pity upvoting. However, how could one achieve any kind of serious discouragement? I suppose we could pop a warning box if someone upvotes a question that's at a negative score? I don't think that's a particularly good solution -- in many cases, a decent answer can get down to -1 or even -2 before it starts getting its upvotes due entirely to weird drive-by downvoters.

Maybe pop the warning box on a -[some threshold] answer? What would the box say? Perhaps something like:

It looks like you've upvoted an unpopular answer. Consider writing a comment to explain why.

It's conceivable, but I don't like it. Too intrusive.

I think the only answer that would really be workable is to place something in the FAQ. But right now, the FAQ is short and sweet -- I'm not sure I want to content creep that too much, either. :)

To be completely honest, I'm not even sure that pity upvoting is a real "problem." Yes, I'm sure it happens, just as I'm sure some users go on downvoting rampages against others. That said, if it's not rampant, and others in the community will downvote the question/answer anyway, why worry?

Finally, anonymous (non-commented) voting means that people can vote, for whatever reason they choose, whichever way they choose. It applies to downvoting, and it applies to upvoting. The community will, eventually, sort it out.

  • 2
    In retrospect, maybe I should have made the warning say, "It looks like you're trying to upvote an unpopular answer. Consider using jQuery instead!" (Sorry, couldn't resist.)
    – John Rudy
    Sep 8, 2009 at 0:32
  • 2
    Good divs ... err ... points, John.
    – Vinko Vrsalovic StaffMod
    Sep 8, 2009 at 0:36

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