When does it make sense to downvote an answer? Do downvotes help improve the overall quality of answers on the site?
Why do people downvote?
I speculate there are 3 reasons someone might downvote a post:
- Because they think the post is inaccurate and want to signal that to the community.
- Because they think the post is poorly formulated and want to signal that to the community.
- Because they want the author to learn to not post low-quality answers.
I'm going to discuss whether downvoting is the best way to achieve any of those three goals.
There was recently a very large study done on how community feedback shapes user behavior: http://cs.stanford.edu/people/jure/pubs/disqus-icwsm14.pdf
From the abstract:
"[...] By studying four large comment-based news communities, we find that negative feedback leads to significant behavioral changes that are detrimental to the community. Not only do authors of negatively-evaluated content contribute more, but also their future posts are of lower quality, and are perceived by the community as such. Moreover, these authors are more likely to subsequently evaluate their fellow users negatively, percolating these effects through the community. [...]"
I'm going to pull a lot of my factual grounding from this paper.
Goal 1: Signaling post inaccuracy
Often there are answers which simply have inaccurate information, e.g.,:
The most polite way to say "Could I please have some water?" is "今すぐ水をくれ。"
Such posts are often downvoted.
Alternative: Leave a comment. If you directly point out the inaccuracy, it will
- allow the author to fix it,
- signal the post inaccuracy far better than a downvote (which has an ambiguous meaning),
- will not have any of the downsides of downvotes which I will mention soon.
Goal 2: Signaling poorly formulated posts
Sometimes, while an answer may have accurate information, it formats it very poorly or misleadingly.
In this case, a comment sometimes may work ("Have you considered introducing concept X before concept Y?" "It seems a little misleading when you introduce 熱いです along with 医者です。"), but often feels like you are being too picky about how someone else should write their answer.
Alternative: Write your own answer (but make sure to credit any ideas you got from the initial answer). This way:
- there are two answers, one of which viewers may understand better, and
- hopefully, the initial answerer does not feel unwanted (due to a downvote) or stolen from (due to a very similar answer which does not give credit).
Alternative: Talk to the author on chat. While comments are not a great place for opinions, opening a dialog in chat seems to be a nice way to discuss something more opinionated or complicated. (Unfortunately, this sometimes fails because some users seem to not use the chat system.)
Goal 3: Make the author not post low-quality answers
Sometimes, you may find yourself thinking that an author's posts are consistently of low quality and want them to stop posting such answers.
However, according to the paper, downvotes are not just ineffective, they are counterproductive:
Downvoting authors does not cause them to write higher-quality posts in the future, it causes them to write lower-quality posts:
"Rather than evaluations increasing the user's post quality and steering the community towards higher quality discussions, we find that negative evaluations actually decrease post quality, with no clear trend for positive evaluations having an effect either way."
Downvoted authors does not cause them to post less, it causes them to post more:
"The fact that both types of evaluations encourage users to post more frequently suggests that providing negative feedback to 'bad' users might not be a good strategy for combating undesired behavior in a community. Given that users who receive no feedback post less frequently, a potentially effective strategy could be to ignore undesired behavior and provide no feedback at all."
Alternative: Like the paper suggests, do not personally vote on the answer. Also, I believe that having another answer available for a question will make people less likely to interact negatively with the low-quality answer. Finally, if there is a better answer, the author of the low-quality answer may realize that their Japanese was not as good as they thought it was without the negative feelings of someone calling them out on it.
As someone who is something of a more established user who decided to leave over this, I'll pitch my two cents in.
The short of it is that I got sick of being publicly shamed because my understanding of concepts wasn't as complete as I thought it to be when posting some answers—especially when this seemed to become a trend where a certain user or two would make a point of doing so quite publicly and abrasively. I have no problem with people pointing out faults in my answers (after all, I'm here to learn, too!), but the environment got to the point where it felt like unless you were a native or a professor who could be reasonably assured of posting a flawless answer you shouldn't even be trying to answer. I finally got fed up with it when someone went so far as to call my answers "dangerous".
I occasionally poke my head in because I do learn things from the conversations from time to time, but I feel absolutely no compulsion to continue being an active participant in the community.