Reasons for voting on questions and answers

I’ve recently been involved in a few discussions around voting on Stack Overflow, and I think my own "policy" around it may be different to that of others. I thought it would be worth sharing why I personally vote items up or down, and hear your thoughts too. This blog may not be the ideal venue for such a post, but until such time as we have a real "meta" site for Stack Overflow (such as Stack Overflow Overflow) I can’t think of anywhere better to write about it. Readers who are only interested in coding should move on; I promise not to include anything about code in the rest of this post.

I’m going to assume that anyone who’s read this far is at least somewhat familiar with the logistics of Stack Overflow – in particular, how one votes and the effects on reputation. I’ll use the word "post" here to mean either a question or an answer.

I’d like to stress that this is in no way meant to be seen as an "official" voting guide – just how I happen to think.

Why vote?

There are two "audiences" for a vote in my view: the author of the post and the community who is reading the post and looking at the vote tally. The author can tell what votes they’ve received using the reputation tab of their "recent activity" page, whereas the readers can only tell what the overall tally is. Obviously the author also receives or loses reputation, too. This means the effect on the author and the audience are slightly different.

For the author, the immediate reward or punishment aspect may sound like the most important aspect: but I’d argue that for many users (particularly those with high reputation) the reputation for a single vote isn’t as important as the effect on the vote tally and what it communicates about your post. There’s usually a positive feedback effect on Stack Overflow: if one answer has a couple of votes and another has none, then the higher voted one is likely to get read more and thus garner more votes. The opposite can happen: an answer with a negative score will sometimes receive "sympathy" votes from users who think, "This answer isn’t brilliant, but it’s not bad enough to deserve downvotes."

For me, the important point about a downvote is that it may indicate I’ve got something wrong in an answer. I may have missed the point of the question in the first place, or simply provided a technically incorrect or unhelpful answer. I want to know about that, so I can fix my answer or delete it if I can’t actually provide any more useful information than is contained in other answers.

For the reader, the information communicated by the score can be as simple as "this question is interesting/this answer is helpful" vs "this is a poor question/this answer is harmful". I would hope that non-regular visitors will quickly get the idea that the highest voted answers are likely to be the best ones, and that answers with a negative score really shouldn’t be trusted. It doesn’t always work that way, but it’s a reasonable rule of thumb.

So, how do I vote?

How I react to questions

I generally upvote a question if it’s been well written and I think the problem is sufficiently common that it’s going to help someone else searching for it. I’ll also upvote it if it’s particularly interesting, even if it’s not a very general problem. I suspect I should upvote questions more often – and I also suspect that’s true of many users.

I very rarely downvote a question, however. If the question is inappropriate, I’ll usually vote to close it. If it’s badly written but intelligible, I’ll edit it. If it isn’t precise enough (just lacks information) I’ll ask for more information in a comment. I don’t see much use in downvoting. Now there are various users who don’t support the idea of closing a question at all, of course – and if closing weren’t an option then I would downvote instead. However, I personally support question closing (when appropriate, of course – I’m not saying every closed question deserved it).

How I react to answers

I will generally upvote an answer if I feel it’s correct and helpful. If there are multiple posts which effectively answer a question, I will usually upvote the best one, but others which provide other bits of relevant information may get a vote too. Again, I probably don’t upvote as often as I should.

I downvote if I see an answer as actively unhelpful: this is usually if it’s technically inaccurate, or suggests something which I think is a really bad idea (such as string concatenation in a loop without a small, known limit). I don’t downvote an answer just for being "not as helpful as it could be" or "not as helpful as another answer". I believe that behaviour discourages people from contributing in the first place, and an extra answer has relatively little cost associated with it. If it contains no information which isn’t present in another answer then I’d prefer it to be deleted, but I’d leave that suggestion as a comment rather than a downvote.

Speaking of comments, I practically always leave a comment when I downvote. A downvote means I believe something is really wrong with the answer, and it should be fixed: leaving it as it is makes the world a worse place than if it didn’t exist. A downvote without a comment is fairly pointless – it doesn’t help the poster to fix the answer, because they don’t know what they did wrong in the first place. I find it intensely frustrating when someone downvotes one of my answers without giving any reason: apart from anything else, that downvote could be made on the basis of a mistaken belief, but without that belief being expressed I have no way of correcting it. I always take another look at an answer which has been downvoted, but I’m much more likely to edit it if I’m given a specific reason.

Note that the reputation loss due to a downvote is almost insignificant – particularly if it’s early in the day (i.e. before very active users hit the 200 cap) – the idea that I’ve written something unhelpful is far more disconcerting to me than the loss of a tiny amount of rep.

I can see why users aren’t prompted for a comment on a downvote – it would be very easy to just type garbage, and that would be worse than no comment at all. It would also require the comment to be anonymised in order to keep the vote itself anonymous. Even so, I’d ask courteous readers to add a comment when you downvote one of my answers: I promise not to "retaliate" with a spate of downvotes, but I’d really like to be able to fix the answer!

In terms of editing, I will often edit an answer for formatting reasons or to correct a small typo, but I edit answers (from other people) less often than I edit questions.

How about you?

Enough about me – how do you vote? If you downvote without comments, what effect are you trying to achieve? When would you downvote a question rather than editing it, voting to close or leaving a comment? How do you react to downvotes to your own posts?

23 thoughts on “Reasons for voting on questions and answers”

  1. >whereas the readers can only tell what the overall tally is

    I think you actually can see (although not so eaisly) both upvotes/downvotes for a question or an answer using the reputation graph on a user’s profile

  2. I almost always use up my votes…

    My problem now is that if I think something *probably* should be closed (but I’l like to get community agreement), I can’t get involved. My “close” vote is binding. The best I can do is leave a comment.

    My overall voting pattern is similar, but I look out for things *in particular* that teach me something new. Also, I really like it when somebody posts a related point – that isn’t a *direct answer* (and probably won’t get the tick), but is something that the OP should probably consider.

    There are two voting strategies that I see occasionally and intensely dislike: the vindictive, and the strategic.

    Vindictive: I’ve simply annoyed somebody (usually by correcting them, no matter how politely I phrase it), so I’ll see a few retaliatory down-votes. There are counter-measures in place for this, but the trigger points are cloaked in mystery, so a few hits here and there won’t be revoked (and I don’t think that is a problem).

    Strategic: two answers arrive at about the same time, so one gets downvoted *purely so the other one is higher* (and more likely to get noticed, upvoted, and accepted).

    Oddly enough, I haven’t seen either of those aimed at me for about a day and a half, now…

  3. I agree getting downvoted without comment is frustrating.

    On the matter of upvoting questions I think not enough voting is done on questions. I try to make a point of upvoting a question to which I add an answer. If the question was interesting enough to answer then it ought to get a vote in my book.

    I do wonder if there is a way to encourage upvoting on the question when someone other than the author finds an answer to it useful? I suspect that its the useful answer that gets the upvote but the question itself does not.

  4. One thing that really annoys me is when people upvote incorrect answers on specialist questions that they don’t fully understand but ‘look right’. These answers can then accumulate some momentum even though they are completely wrong…

  5. I rarely downvote these days because of the sympathy up-voting. Instead, I just try to leave comments as to how the answer could be improved or why users should take the answer under advisement.

    I also have an informal upvote cap in that if an answer is more than max(20, 3X next highest answer), then I won’t upvote it unless the answer is especially insightful, complete, or well written.

    I almost always upvote less-popular (generally <5 upvotes) answers that have any additional or useful tidbits beyond what the “popular” answer provides.

    I have often found superior answers ignored because they were posted after the “popular” answer already had 10+ upvotes (even if it wasn’t especially good or was not strictly correct).

  6. I vote in a very similar way – downvotes are very few and far between. I also think it is helpful to add a comment indicating *why* I downvoted the question and if the problem is correctable (and if the correction is made) I usually remove my downvote.

    When it comes to upvoting I am quite generous and usually use up all my votes for a given day. Also if the answer was particularly good or if there was a particular part of the post that stood out to me I leave a comment indicating that I upvoted and a compliment to that effect. Since votes are anonymous, sometimes it can be nice to know who has voted for you.

  7. I’m much more liberal with my upvotes (maybe too liberal, I don’t know). If someone has added quality, well-thought out information to the solutions body, I’ll give them an upvote. So, while it’s generally just one upvote per question, I can give as many as four upvotes to various answers, if I think they deserve it.

    I totally agree with Jeff that if I’m interested in a particular question, I’ll read almost everything on the page, regardless of votes, etc. So, I personally want to push all the quality information up to the top, while also rewarding those answer authors who may not have the absolute best/most complete answer but may have offered an important piece not in the top solution.

    Of course, I haven’t answered enough to achieve edit rights to that top solution, so maybe that would change the story, too.

  8. I upvote and downvote for pretty much the same reasons, although I’ll upvote every answer to a question that’s a good answer, rather than the “best” one. Quite frequently you get duplicates that are only a minute or two apart, and I think they deserve some of the love the quick-post/edit guys get.

    That said, I rarely downvote and then only for the most heinous of posts. I prefer a helpful comment with the hope of an edit to an actual downvote.

  9. I like your approach to voting. I haven’t been on stackoverflow very long and consider myself a relative beginner when it comes to these matters. I have not set a guideline for myself on when to vote up or down, and when to leave comments and so on.

    I have downvoted less than a handful of times, but I think it may have happened without leaving a comment at one or two of those occasions, something that I am not likely to repeat after reading this post (I have also noticed you mentioning this in some comment on the site). I think it makes sense to give a reason for downvoting for more than one reason; the obvious one to give the poster a chance to correct (or explain), but also to force myself to think through why I want to downvote. It may be that I, while putting words on it, discover that a downvote may not be necessary.

  10. In terms of using up votes – I don’t often use up all my votes, which is probably an indication that I don’t vote enough. Will try to rectify this :)

    Jon

  11. Regarding upvotes, I’m close enough to the general approach outlines as to make no difference.

    Giving of downvotes: if I think a comment will make a difference: i.e. the answer appears well-intended but is dangerously wrong, it gets vote+comment. If I don’t think an explanation will make any difference I won’t give one.

    Receiving of downvotes tends to stop me in my tracks. Almost always (not that often, thankfully) it turns out that I knew less than I thought I did and had posted something that turned out to be wrong. Usually my error is highlighted by other, correct answers, so I simply withdraw my flawed contribution.

  12. My voting pattern seems to follow what you describe, except I rarely downvote. I prefer to just leave a comment. A downvote doesn’t tell the OP what could be improved, so imo they are rarely useful. I really hate downvotes without comments.

    I would love to see a small rep bonus for comment upvotes. There are some really useful bits of information in the comments every now and then.

  13. Hey Skeeter,

    You should write a book about C# that is actually in depth. I felt “C# in Depth” was more “C# Skin Deep”.

    Peas,
    C

  14. I think they [stackoverflow] should force you to comment every time you downvoted someone.

  15. Jon:

    I like your analysis, but there is one place I diverge from you slightly. I don’t downvote very often, I probably should a bit more. But, when I see someone with reputation such that they should know better asking a question that I believe should be closed, I might downvote as well.

    The reasoning behind this is that I think it’s important for the community to help shape the behavior of up and coming participants by use of aversives. Like you said, a downvote does not hurt that much in terms of reputation, but 4 or 5 can indicate that you’ve done something that the community by and large disagrees with and you should avoid in the future.

    JP

  16. What I have seen and what I really dislike is tactical downvoting. Some people do it this way:
    You wrote an answer (maybe a minute before they did). Their answer and yours both have the same solution and have (lets say) at this time both 1 upvote. Now you get a downvote from them – their answer will be on the top, yours is second. Normally the first answer gets more upvotes. When they get finally accepted they will undo their downvote.
    Although you posted your solution first and although it was basically the same solution they posted – you won’t get accepted and you will get less upvotes. Other users can’t see, that you were downvoted.

  17. So far my downvotes are about 5% of total, and all have been for things that were, as you say, actively unhelpful. I’ve been pretty offended to get downvotes when my answer, while helpful, was not complete.

  18. yeah jon… but its still a fight between no downwoting and responsible downvoting…. giving comments with down vote might not improve the situation… i suppose down voting trend continues with comment of a previous down voter copy pasted… just my thought.. [:)]

  19. It seems like I follow a fairly similar voting pattern to you. The only difference is that I almost *never* downvote, usually opting to just leave a comment instead. I only downvote if something is actively harmful. If an answer is wrong but within a quick edit of being right I find a comment much more useful.

    Marc, I think Jeff chose the wrong word when he said our close votes were “binding”. Our decision can still be reversed if the normal number of regular users vote to reopen. Still, I usually don’t like to slam questions closed, either, and just let the community decide.

  20. Regarding upvotes, I’m close enough to the general approach outlines as to make no difference.

    Giving of downvotes: if I think a comment will make a difference: i.e. the answer appears well-intended but is dangerously wrong, it gets vote+comment. If I don’t think an explanation will make any difference I won’t give one.

    Receiving of downvotes tends to stop me in my tracks. Almost always (not that often, thankfully) it turns out that I knew less than I thought I did and had posted something that turned out to be wrong. Usually my error is highlighted by other, correct answers, so I simply withdraw my flawed contribution.

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