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There have been numerous posts (here on MSE, on MSO, and other meta sites) requesting some form of explanation with downvotes. Although most curators are quite sceptical that any such scheme would be beneficial, it's still one of the most requested features.

Prompt to specify downvote reason but allow to keep downvotes anonymous is a recent example. I don't believe that anonymous critical comments would have a positive effect. (And it's not the first time that anonymous feedback has been discussed).

I most definitely do not want to force voters to explain their votes. But what if there were another way... ?

Occasionally, people post comments that try to explain why a post is getting a negative response with the disclaimer "I didn't downvote, but ...". However, those comments can still provoke a negative reaction (including revenge downvotes), partly because there's currently no way of knowing if they're being truthful about not downvoting.

But what if the system software made downvoting and commenting mutually exclusive? That is, the system prevents you from commenting if you've cast a downvote, and vice versa, it blocks you from downvoting if you've posted a comment?

That way, authors (and other readers) would know that you're being totally honest when you say "I didn't downvote, but ...", (in fact, you wouldn't even need to say that). I believe that this would lead to comments being seen more positively, and treated as helpful constructive criticism.

I suppose this is essentially a "good cop, bad cop" mechanism. It's not guaranteed to lead to positive outcomes, but it tends to be much more successful than "bad cop, worse cop" approaches. ;)

Of course, this system requires that the new authors are informed that downvotes and comments are mutually exclusive. And I don't know how to do that effectively. Sure, we could make that information prominent in the Help pages but new authors are notorious for not taking the Tour or reading the Help pages.

Obviously, this would require a change to the system software, and I have no idea whether it would be a minor patch or if it would need a major change to fundamental system components.

I'm not suggesting that this system be applied retrospectively. That would be impractical. It would only apply to new interactions.


I must confess that I'm a prolific commenter (but I do try to avoid posting actual answers in question comments). I'd often like to post constructive criticism in comments, but most of the time I avoid it because the post author is likely to see it as an attack, not as an attempt to be helpful.

I believe my suggestion would lead to a much more positive relationship between the new post authors and the community of curators.


Under my system, the block wouldn't be permanent. If you undo your downvote, then you can comment. And if all your comments are deleted, then you can downvote. I suppose that could partly undermine the anonymity of voting, but IMHO it would still be better than the current system, where almost all curation activities are perceived as punitive action.

I understand that votes are primarily intended to help other readers. However, we also want to help new authors to make valuable contributions to our libraries of questions and answers, and many of those new authors would love constructive feedback, and could benefit from it. But few curators want to post such feedback, partly because we've seen what happens when OPs perceive constructive criticism as punishment. I'd like to create a more positive atmosphere, both for the new authors and for the more experienced members who want to pass on their expertise.

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  • 21
    Downvotes and comments need not be mutually exclusive. Sometimes I downvote a post and leave a comment (for example a comment specifying what information OP should add to improve their question). Putting up artificial barriers like this only makes the user experience worse. Sep 29, 2023 at 11:31
  • 2
    This won't change the mentality of the people who engage in this undesireable behaviour -- the ones who aren't interested in understanding how things work still won't, those that take things too personally will still be as unreasonable as they were before. Meanwhile, the rest of us will be inconvenienced by reduced functionality.
    – Dan Mašek
    Sep 29, 2023 at 12:04
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    @Abdul I generally leave a comment, and give the author time to fix their post, or reply to my comment. If they don't fix things, then I'm likely to downvote. Only if the post is really bad am I likely to DV & comment at the sane time.
    – PM 2Ring
    Sep 29, 2023 at 12:10
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    You made 2 opposite statements “the post author is likely to see it as an attack, not as an attempt to be helpful.” and “many of those new authors would love constructive feedback”. Which reaction is more likely? Do you have any stats? What is your personal estimation? In my experience it’s probably 1:10 that people usually understand the polite comments as constructive feedback. Sep 29, 2023 at 12:53
  • @MichaelFreidgeim I believe that the current system encourages authors to perceive comments negatively. My hope is to change that by breaking the link between downvotes & comments. I don't have any stats, but we often get "why did I get downvoted" requests in chat rooms, and OPs tends to respond better to constructive criticism in chat, where there are no downvotes. OTOH, many new members don't know that chat even exists. The chat rooms are not well advertised, and new members can't chat until they've earned a bit of rep (although it's less than the rep needed to comment anywhere).
    – PM 2Ring
    Sep 29, 2023 at 13:17
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    Chat isn't the right place to solve the problem either (regardless of how much more chat-aware we could possibly make people). Disassociating it from the actual page where the posts exist isn't helpful for any future reader, and the conversation about why is essentially lost for everyone except for the people actively engaged in that moment.
    – Aaron Bertrand Staff
    Sep 29, 2023 at 13:20
  • @AaronBertrand Sure. I was just explaining to Michael why I believe that post authors can be open to constructive criticism, when they're in an environment where they're less likely to perceive responses as attacks.
    – PM 2Ring
    Sep 29, 2023 at 13:36
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    @PM2Ring That might be true for some users who write bad questions, in a handful of cases you might have observed, but having been here a little longer and having been a moderator for several years, I suspect a large majority of new users who are ever prone to perceive responses as attacks are always going to be prone to perceive responses as attacks, no matter where they happen.
    – Aaron Bertrand Staff
    Sep 29, 2023 at 13:44
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    @Aaron Ok. I've only been a member for 9 years, and I've never wanted to be a mod. But I'm a RO of the SO Python chat, and participate in a couple of other active chat rooms (Physics, Math). Certainly, many members just want to treat the sites like a help desk, and get upset when we don't cooperate. But a significant minority do want to learn how to use the sites properly, and I've seen some great transformations happen through chat interactions.
    – PM 2Ring
    Sep 29, 2023 at 14:03
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    (cont) I'm not suggesting that we make the main sites more chatty, but I believe we can make comments feel less threatening.
    – PM 2Ring
    Sep 29, 2023 at 14:03
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    @PM2Ring IMHO if people are over-sensitive to constructive comments then maybe it isn't our problem to solve.
    – Aaron Bertrand Staff
    Sep 29, 2023 at 16:21

3 Answers 3

19

I sometimes want to point a user at the right direction, but the post is bad enough that it needs a downvote, or I need a downvote as part of the deletion process on a site where I'm not a moderator.

While -1 comments are not very nice, "Hey, this is off topic here, because..." or "there's some crucial misunderstandings in this answer" might be useful.

There's also very occasionally 'good' tactical downvotes, with comments leading readers away from a wrong answer.

As an experienced user, I prefer to have, and try to use the full toolkit I have. If a user decides to downvote me—I'll need to deal with it, and if it's serial downvoting we have processes in place to deal with it.

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  • I want to make the tool of commenting more effective. There's not much point in giving constructive criticism if the author is likely to interpret it as punishment rather than as help. If a post needs downvotes and comments, surely multiple readers will agree, and some can comment, and the others can downvote.
    – PM 2Ring
    Sep 29, 2023 at 12:04
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    Lemme give you an example. An answer is obviously wrong. Downvoting is correct, Commenting helps the next guy who reads it. I might get downvoted for 'just' commenting - or if someone else downvotes and I get blamed. We've not fixed any of it, and made life harder for a curator Sep 29, 2023 at 12:09
  • But the point of my system is that if you comment the OP (or friends) can't blame you for downvotes.
    – PM 2Ring
    Sep 29, 2023 at 12:12
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    You assume angry people have a deep knowledge of the system, rather than lashing out whoever is in range Sep 29, 2023 at 12:14
  • @PM2Ring Uh, what exactly is stopping them?
    – Dan Mašek
    Sep 29, 2023 at 12:14
  • @JourneymanGeek Of course my suggestion would only work if the system made it common knowledge that it's impossible for a person to downvote and comment.
    – PM 2Ring
    Sep 29, 2023 at 12:18
  • @Dan Sorry, maybe I misunderstand your comment. My suggestion is to change the system software so that downvotes and comments are mutually exclusive. So it's simply impossible to downvote a post that you commented on, and vice versa.
    – PM 2Ring
    Sep 29, 2023 at 12:20
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    @PM2Ring a lot of 'common knowledge' - even well documented help center stuff... isn't. Sep 29, 2023 at 12:33
  • @JourneymanGeek Fair point, and I don't know how to make newbies read the help centre stuff. One suggestion is to make it mandatory to view the Help pages before making your first post. But even that wouldn't guarantee that they've actually read and understood that stuff.
    – PM 2Ring
    Sep 29, 2023 at 13:08
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    @PM2Ring Sounds like every terms of use I've ever "read."
    – Aaron Bertrand Staff
    Sep 29, 2023 at 13:17
  • @PM2Ring page down, page down page down "I hereby sell my soul to $megacorp" - also practically a lot of things, even if written down are understood better as you use the network, and get engaged, We don't want to bog down new users in minituae. Sep 29, 2023 at 13:22
  • @Journeyman That's true, too. And when you have a written list of rules, some people will invariably engage in rules-lawyering...
    – PM 2Ring
    Sep 29, 2023 at 13:39
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    Oh man, those are the worst. Sep 29, 2023 at 13:42
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    What exactly is "tactical" about downvoting a wrong answer because it is wrong? Oct 1, 2023 at 9:58
  • I know it might get the OP to delete it on their own. As opposed to a downvote that's generally meant to be one of a few, possibly with the view of community deletion, or a modhammer. Oct 1, 2023 at 10:28
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I think it's important to separate questions and answers whenever talking about voting, understanding voting, or reacting to voting.

As mentioned elsewhere there are additional reasons to down-vote answers that don't have anything to do with helping the author (e.g. comments that can help every other reader for the rest of time understand why this answer might not be great). Particularly with answers (and especially for old answers), down-votes alone are not enough to indicate bad-ness (since they are hidden behind the aggregate and often offset by less scrutinous up-votes).

With questions, if nobody who felt strong enough to down-vote is allowed to explain why, how will the OP ever learn what all the down-votes are for? As also mentioned elsewhere, I've given up on the notion that users will ever take the tour or read anything in the help center before posting their questions, and I've also given up on the notion that we can stop every user able to down-vote from down-voting bad questions from new users.

So I don't think this restriction is good for questions or answers. It doesn't really solve any problem except preventing an author from acting on immature impulses, or taking a comment too harshly, or preventing a down-voter from saying anything (not just things that are mean or are likely to cause adverse reactions - that's a problem that flags already solve).

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If I'm commenting to explain an issue with a question, it's because it's something that I think prevents the question from measuring up to the site's standards. If I think that is the case, then it follows that I think the question does not measure up to those standards. Thus, it follows that I think the question, in its current form, is not useful to the site, and is of low quality.

Therefore, I should also downvote that question. I would be remiss in my duties as a curator if I skipped that step.

I don't say "I didn't downvote, but..." any more - because if it makes any sense for the part after the ellipsis to have such a qualifier, then it isn't true. I did, in these cases, downvote. These votes only don't match up for me any more if I've run out of one or the other for the day (e.g. because I downvoted something that got closed anyway, or an old overrated question; or because I found and closed old duplicates).

I have found that form comments that show the appropriate courtesy (i.e. that make a basic explanation of policy and link to the appropriate documentation of that policy, and use words like "please" where appropriate - but are not chatty and try to avoid the appearance of being passive-aggressive) are usually well received.

In the cases where they aren't, I'm an adult and I can usually deal with someone yelling at me; if my mental state doesn't currently accommodate that, I shouldn't be on the site. If someone replies to me in a way that merits a flag, I use an appropriate flag. Revenge downvotes are mostly corrected by the system, and I don't especially care about the reputation points anyway. (There have been times that I closed something as a duplicate and then immediately put a bounty on the target, because even the best target I found seemed lacking even though it nominally asks and answers the right question.)

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  • If a post isn't useful, and is unlikely to be salvageable, then kill it with fire. But if there's a chance to improve the post and educate the author, I'd be prepared to choose between downvoting and commenting, if it made the author more likely to act positively in response to my comment, both by fixing the current post, and improving their future behaviour. And as I said to Journeyman, if a post is bad, then it's likely that more than one person will agree that it's bad, so some can comment and the rest can DV.
    – PM 2Ring
    Oct 1, 2023 at 11:49
  • Sometimes when I post a comment pointing out flaws in an answer, the author simply deletes the answer. I find this a bit disconcerting, since I expect the author to improve the answer, or at least reply to my comment. And this can even happen without the answer receiving any downvotes. OTOH, there are prolific posters of low quality answers who are almost impervious to any form of criticism, and who only self-delete if they get a huge pile of downvotes.
    – PM 2Ring
    Oct 1, 2023 at 11:59
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    Sometimes when I downvote an answer, the author deletes it before I can finish the follow-up comment. :/ Oct 1, 2023 at 21:38

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