I ran into this today, but reading a bit on meta, I notice that this is actually a common occurrence:
- Mel posts a slightly incorrect or incomplete answer to a question
- Victor posts another, slightly better answer
- Victor downvotes Mel’s answer and comments on it explaining why it is incorrect/incomplete
- Other people come along, see Victor’s comment first, take issue with the nitpicky attitude and/or the phrasing, and downvote Victor’s answer in retaliation
- Some of them might also upvote Mel’s incorrect/incomplete answer out of sympathy
I think we all agree that this behaviour is not in line with StackOverflow’s goals. The ideal user should feel compelled to upvote/downvote solely based on the content of an answer, but many people don’t seem to get it.
The root cause
The two root causes of the problem are obvious:
- There is too much emotion connected with a downvote. A downvote is felt to be a “punishment” to the answerer; and some feel that an answer that is only slightly wrong does not deserve such “harsh” punishment. Therefore, they do the same thing back, this time actually intended as a punishment, and it is out of proportion because multiple people do it.
- People have the opportunity to retaliate because they can tell which answer is from the same person as the controversial comment.
The problem, continued
The incentive this generates is to stop commenting when you downvote. There is no point in trying to be helpful to the answerer if there is a greater risk of being punished for it. Clearly, this too is against the spirit of Stack Overflow; the idea is to give the answerer a chance to improve their answer, but this prevents it.
The proposed solution
Allow users to comment anonymously, but only once for each downvote, for the express purpose of justifying the downvote. This removes the opportunity to link the comment to another answer and thus prevents this form of retaliation.