I've read the FAQs on SO and meta SO, and still am not fully clear on what deserves upvotes and downvotes.

Could someone point to a guide for these things? Here are some examples of questions and concerns I've had that I haven't been able to find good help for:

Example 1:

Some answers on a question (not mine) are correct, but leave out something critical such as "but if you do this without proper locks, high concurrency will cause race conditions that break the code." I chose to downvote some posts because of this, but someone was dismayed that I had done so. So now what? I shouldn't downvote? One person did update his answer to add the missing info, so I removed the downvote on that answer. But one person also downvoted my answer (in the same question), pointing out a defect, but didn't remove it after I fixed that defect.

So what gives? I realize that tactical downvoting when answers are equally good is probably frowned on, but is it really purely tactical downvoting if the answer downvoted, while correct as far as it goes, could be misleading or poor practice?

Example 2:

It seems pretty obvious what upvotes for answers mean: it was useful, helpful, and so on. And downvotes for questions seem obvious to me: the question was off-topic, impossible to understand, offensive, and so on.

But what do upvotes on questions mean? I can think of a dozen "good" questions in my area of expertise, but I wouldn't ask them because I already know the answer. Unless, is that an accepted way of using SO? Should I ask questions that people might want to know the answer to, then go ahead and answer them myself? --interjection: yes, I finally saw that the FAQ says "It's also perfectly fine to ask and answer your own question"--

Are there some guidelines for what makes a good question? Why do people vote up questions in the first place?

Example 3:

What is the point of clicking the favorite icon on a question? Do people use these to easily find questions again (implying it's something they also need help with), or simply to express that the question is one they liked (and for what reasons)?

I'm very competitive, but I want to use the site properly, with no one important having any quibbles with my upvoting and downvoting practices. (I say "important" because an individual may mind very much that I downvoted him, even though the majority culture of the site might be in favor of my action.)

That competitiveness also changes what I consider nice. I don't mind someone downvoting my answer if they say why, and will bother to remove the downvote if I fix the problem. So I was feeling no qualms about doing something similar for others' answers, until someone complained. So what do I do?

Update 1:

I've read a couple of answers and some more posts (see comments below and also generating reputation through downvotes and the answer to tactical downvoting problem, which were interesting).

But what I was hoping for (at least about downvotes) was less of a philosophical/metaphysical discussion and more of a concrete one, ala "Here's the purpose, here's how it should be done". I realize that may not be possible.

In the meantime, I think the choices "this answer is useful" and "this answer is not useful" leave out some middle ground, something like: "this answer is useful IF {major caveat}, otherwise it's not useful." So I'm still left wondering if I'm going to end up downvoting things that others would criticize me for (and wondering if I ought to even care about that kind of criticism).

I guess one helpful thing I read was the idea of using votes to try to make the best answers float to the top, and otherwise pretty much leaving them alone (thinking in terms of relative global value rather than absolute global value or any kind of personal value). Of course, this runs smack into tactical downvoting.

Update 2: Take a look at this question on SO. I downvoted an answer and clearly explained why. Now my answer has a downvote without a comment. Sigh.

  • @Downvoter: I've read the first link, and found it interesting and a little useful, but reading what some people have bothered to post about why they downvote doesn't really help me solidify how I ought to run my voting. Will read second link now. – ErikE Feb 12 '10 at 1:00
  • @Downvoter: The second link is also interesting, and seems to support more frequent use of downvoting even though some people don't like it happening to them. I'm left still wondering. – ErikE Feb 12 '10 at 1:07
  • May not make a difference, but... Prefixing critical comments with "-1" kinda rubs salt in it. It's nice to comment when down-voting, but you don't have to comment that you down-voted. – Shog9 Jun 9 '11 at 18:05
  • @Shog9 I can see what you mean. Thanks for the helpful comment. I saw it as transparency rather than nastiness: to me it was an explicit offer of reversing the downvote if the defect was corrected. Like saying, "Hey, I downvoted you but am opening a channel of dialog for you to get those points back." But I see your point now. – ErikE Jun 9 '11 at 18:09
  • @Erik: I get that, and for some % of SO users asking about or being told about voting-reasons isn't a big deal... But for the rest, it risks sidetracking the discussion, and given that you can both effectively ask for and receive feedback without bringing voting into it, I don't see any good reason to include it. – Shog9 Jun 9 '11 at 18:24

I can tell you what I use the Favorites for - basically to keep track of questions that I'm interested in either seeing what the answer is, or where a discussion goes.

As far as competitiveness, there is a time and place for it - but it won't win you anything here if you don't take care in keeping that in check. Yes, we all want the prestige of a high reputation. But it comes in little bits and chunks. I've been able to start giving back and answering questions. While it is difficult at first, I've found that my knowledge has expanded - even in areas that I wasn't particularly interested in. Don't let that competitive edge get the better of you. I've been 30 seconds behind someone and posted an equivalent (if not slightly better answer, IMO) and maybe gotten an up-vote while the one that beat me got accepted and 5 up-votes.

Remember this, though - the people that pose the questions are not the only ones who will see your answers. Somewhere down the road, another person will come along and see your answer. If it is truly better, it will eventually all come out in the wash.

Up-voting & Down-voting
I had to think about it a bit, but I've come to the conclusion that I look for a specific characteristic shared by both questions & answers:

clarity - descriptive problem statement

for questions:
1. show me - show me some evidence that some earnest effort has preceded the question

for answers:
1. accuracy - be correct in the facts
2. explanation - simply providing a piece of code is not always all that is needed

Now, that said, I also find it difficult for me to always live up to my standards. If I look at my question a day later and I am confused, I will delete it and/or start over. Answers are quickly judged by the community and I take those to heart. If my answer gets a down-vote, I would certainly like to know why. If my answer is wrong due to my misunderstanding of the question, I will either attempt to correct it or delete it and see if I can start over. Admittedly, I have stepped into situations where I misunderstood the question and my answer was completely wrong. I took my lumps, deleted the answer, and moved on.

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  • 1
    When I mentioned competitiveness, I didn't so much mean "cruising for rep at any cost." While rep is nice to get, I meant more about competing to provide the best answer, taking pride in having knowledge and skill in my profession and doing my best to help others get GOOD solutions. (There's something about a superb SQL query that makes me tingle, and there's something about poor queries that makes me feel nasty.) If I think my answer to a question has some critical info that others answers are ignoring, that bugs me. – ErikE Feb 12 '10 at 1:11
  • You bet - There are answer I see on SO that are accepted because they do provide a basic correct answer. But if you can give that little bit more to explain where/why/how - you are likely to have answered more questions that the one originally posted. To me, those are the answers that should be the considered the best. Sadly, some of those answers never get seen because of the time it took to get that complete and informative response. – IAbstract Feb 12 '10 at 1:40
  • I've noticed that. I'm considering adopting the practice of giving a brief and correct but not comprehensive answer, then spending time to update it with all the goods afterward. – ErikE Feb 12 '10 at 1:52
  • This is a practice that I've seen more and more often (as I am now beginning to do more answering than asking). – IAbstract Feb 12 '10 at 19:01

I will almost always downvote a .NET answer that:

  1. doesn't use the using statement on newly-created objects of classes that implement the IDisposable interface.
  2. uses new XmlTextWriter()
  3. demonstrates how not to catch exceptions
  4. recommends the use of WSE as other than a last resort

I also down vote an answer that says something stupid like "Java clients can't communicate with a WCF service", but then everyone does that.

Note that I'm not recommending that you follow my example. I'm only suggesting that if anyone gives you grief for following my example, you can refer them to this answer.

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  • +1 for following me over here, John. I'll follow your guidelines and let them know you sent me... :) – IAbstract Feb 12 '10 at 0:59
  • @dboarman: I didn't follow you - were were just both going to the same place. – John Saunders Feb 12 '10 at 3:20
  • nonetheless, good points on things to up-vote for and I agree that the first point is valid, especially in providing a thorough example. However, there are cases where you have a new or hobby programmer not learned in some techniques. Given that that person might be able to otherwise answer a question correctly might not warrant a down-vote. Instead a supporting comment explaining that using should be implemented for thus and so reasons. – IAbstract Feb 13 '10 at 5:31

For your example 1: I leave a comment with the missing critical information, or edit it into the answer myself. I don't downvote unless the answer is clearly unhelpful, but I don't upvote it either if it's missing critical information. I don't generally downvote answers on questions I am answering myself.

For your example 2: If the question is useful and clear, I upvote it. In addition, if I find the question interesting, I upvote it (If I answer the question, I consider this being interested enough to upvote the question). If the question is not clear to me, but it produces some interesting answers, I will upvote it.

I don't generally downvote questions, unless they are particularly egregious. Those kinds of questions are typically asked by users with 1 rep anyway, so there's no point in downvoting them; I vote to close or flag the question instead.

For your example 3: I will favorite a question if I want to come back and look at it later, or keep it for future reference. There are no scoring considerations.

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  • Whenever I favorite a question, and it's not to keep track of it and see if the questioner adds badly needed information, I upvote it. – David Thornley Feb 12 '10 at 17:33

To avoid too much tit-for-tat, I avoid downvoting answers on a question when I'm entering an answer of my own. Since I have the rep, I'll edit another answer to supply a small missing bit or correct and edge case. If it's more wrong than that, I'll leave a comment.

Even if it's really wrong, I generally prefer to trust the community to vote in the right direction to push up the more correct answer. I reserve downvotes for answers that I know are dead wrong and for which I don't have the time or expertise to fix them or type in an alternative.

In fact, if there's a pretty good answer, but I just can't resist the urge to type in my own that had a different emphasis or slant, I'll generally up vote the alternative. And I often find that behavior reciprocated.

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