It's come to my attention that users, even established users, aren't actually aware of many of the basic tenets of this website. For example, Voting. I was recently informed by a 2K+ user that "down voting" a question was to punish users for doing something "bad".

The actual reason for downvoting a question is to alert a user to a poorly asked question, and hopefully is followed up by a comment to help the user to learn how to improve what they've asked.

It my understanding that downvoting anything is not supposed to be used as a mechanism for flagging inappropriate questions, punishment, or for marking questions you don't like... And yet, I worry that many users aren't aware of that.

A poorly asked question is defined by the site as:

"[A] question [that] does not show any research effort; it is unclear or not useful"

. A poor answered question is defined by the site as:

"Not useful."

I wonder how many users have actually read the above quotes before?

It seems to me that there should be more readily available reference to point users to who don't understand how this site is designed to be run. The FAQ is so light on information that it doesn't cover topics on basics like this.

Just my 2c.

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    "The FAQ is so light on information that it doesn't cover topics on basics like this." - this is intentional. The site is intended to be community run. Not driven in a dictatorial top down fashion. That is one of it's strengths in my opinion.
    – EBGreen
    Commented Jan 23, 2012 at 16:45
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    This isn't true. The site clearly gives users guidelines when they first vote, and continues to issue reminders on the point of voting on every single page. While it's true the site guidelines should evolve with the community's direction, it is not true that tools should misused against those guidelines at a user's discretion. Commented Jan 23, 2012 at 17:08
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    @JohnnyW, I think the guidelines are relatively clear and they allow a nice amount of user discretion. Downvotes in general were discouraged by inflicting a rep penalty to insure that you voted down only when you felt strongly about it see here. There is a large difference (to me at least) between deserves no vote, and deserves a downvote.
    – soandos
    Commented Jan 23, 2012 at 18:16
  • @soandos That link is about them removing the rep penalty? Also, which guidelines are you referring to? Could you provide a link to the ones you think are "relatively clear"? Commented Jan 23, 2012 at 18:20
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    I guess my occasional down vote on off topic questions comes from my definition of the last clause in the FAQ line "...or not useful". I came out of the fighting in the beta for SO with the understanding that the SE sites were strict Q&A sites where anything that suggested or potentially lead to prolonged discussion or where there wasn't one good "This is the answer and the only answer" was considered to be not useful.
    – EBGreen
    Commented Jan 23, 2012 at 19:36
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    Crazy the amount of discussion over a set of instructions that are as dynamic as the users of the site itself. From now on, I'm downvote any questions relating to XP. And Microsoft Access.
    – surfasb
    Commented Jan 25, 2012 at 8:16
  • @ArneStenström Thanks! Commented Mar 11, 2012 at 18:40

4 Answers 4


You know, the big problem is that you can't tell users how to vote and what to vote for. Even if you tell them, you can't force them to do so, right? And, moreover, there's no way to find out who actually cast a vote. And even if it were, there wouldn't (currently) be a way to undo this.

But, maybe we can find the interpretation when looking at what the FAQs say. In fact, it would be quite reasonable to downvote a question that's off topic. Why? The main reasons for voting down a question are indicated on the button's hover text.

enter image description here

These are:

  • it doesn't show research effort
  • it's unclear
  • it's not useful

By definition of the buttons, downvoting should of course not be a (personal) punishment. However:

This question […] is not useful

Is an off-topic question ever useful for a Stack site? I don't think so. Questions that are off-topic diminish the quality of the site in the long run, and I think we can all agree on this. This hover text is very prominent and I beleve every user who's cast a downvote will have seen it.

Still, once you obtain the privilege to downvote, you'll get a link to the description page. It's fairly accurate. Here's what it says:

Use your downvotes whenever you encounter a […] no-effort-expended post

In a way, this could be interpreted like the following: Every user is expected to read the FAQ and the How to Ask page. Posting an off-topic question is therefore a sign of you probably not understanding the FAQ, or actually not having read it.

In this regard, I can understand the occasional downvote for off-topic questions. Since not everybody votes down questions that are off-topic, but the SE community still figured these questions deserved punishment, questions closed as off-topic and not a real question automatically get a downvote from the Community user.

I believe this is a strong sign that downvoting on bad questions needed to be encouraged more. See also the Stack Overflow blog post: Optimizing For Pearls, Not Sand. The essence (emphasis mine):

Therefore, the only logical thing to do is to maximize the happiness and enjoyment of answerers. If this means aggressively downvoting or closing unworthy and uninteresting questions, so be it.

You say that voting is "not supposed to be used as a mechanism for flagging inappropriate questions", but this is exactly what it's supposed to be. Over all, I believe the reasons for voting down are well known.

In fact, history shows that both team and community tried to encourage downvoting content that is not a good fit for the site. They repeatedly stressed it, and the wording of the button hover text and the privileges section

  • Your first sentence is completely wrong. Of course you can tell users when it's appropriate/inappropriate to vote. This entire site relies and runs on people following pre-set guidelines and not "breaking the rules". Yes, these things (all of them) are very hard to enforce, but that doesn't mean there shouldn't be clear and definite guidelines. The whole point of this question is to raise the issue: Are users actually aware of site guidelines... and if not, what can we do about that? Commented Jan 24, 2012 at 13:27
  • It was NOT meant for us to debate or question those guidelines beyond: "Are they clear? Are they visible? Is the average user aware of them?" Commented Jan 24, 2012 at 13:29
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    Well, what's not clear about these guidelines? I think they're fairly accurate, and the wording is almost the same, both on the button tooltip and the page that explains voting. In my entire time, I haven't seen any user who'd openly confess voting patterns that are abnormal (we just had that yesterday). In fact, if the voting system were completely off on a large scale, they would have changed it accordingly. (ctd.)
    – slhck
    Commented Jan 24, 2012 at 13:31
  • In fact, the whole point of making downvotes on questions free (that happened a couple of months ago) was optimizing the community-filtering of good vs. bad questions, since people wouldn't really downvote that much. The idea was to make it easier to downvote stuff that was just not a good fit for the site. Which an off-topic question obviously is. What are you complaining about?
    – slhck
    Commented Jan 24, 2012 at 13:33
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    I believe the guidelines are unclear and hidden away. How many users bother to go to the "Privileges" pages? And TITLE tags are terrible ways of conveying information because it takes far more time for them to appear than it does for a user to click on something. A recent conflagration highlighted the complete lack of understanding on both sides. You're saying the guidelines are "clear", another user was saying they were fine because they were "deliberately vague". Which is it? I think this shows there's some disparity and confusion. And the purpose of this post is to find out how much. Commented Jan 24, 2012 at 14:44
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    I think they're clear in the sense of how to interpret them. Deliberately vague, probably. That's the subjectivity of voting, and as already mentioned, you will never get rid of that. It's the same about people upvoting bikeshed questions. The "disparity" and "confusion" I see in this case is mostly you making a fuss about getting a downvote on a question that was very clearly off topic. You posted an off topic question, what did you expect?.
    – slhck
    Commented Jan 24, 2012 at 15:28
  • I know that every downvote can be upsetting. Of course, it's more upsetting when you don't know what it was for, but in your case, it was pretty obvious. Altogether, and this is pretty common for MSO, people like to raise complaints about net loss of a meagre 3 reputation and think that the bigger picture is wrong, or that there's a general flaw in the system. In reality though, these are very rare cases, and I think most of us could agree that – at least in your case – there was a good enough reason for downvoting.
    – slhck
    Commented Jan 24, 2012 at 15:29
  • And quoting you > It is not supposed to be used as a mechanism for flagging inappropriate questions, punishment — where is the reference for that? On a mostly zero-scored front page, -1 posts do stick out, so the community will react on them. It's a very easy way to point out that something is wrong or inappropriate about a post. Why shouldn't you downvote it?
    – slhck
    Commented Jan 24, 2012 at 15:37
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    Haha. We finally get to your point. Oh dear. So if someone raises an issue they're automatically doing it because they're "sore" at getting a single downvote? Yeah, believe me, I really don't care about that. Good gravy! Now that's been addressed, could we get back the issue at hand, maybe? Commented Jan 24, 2012 at 15:54
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    My remarks in this post about "downvotes" not being used as "punishment" has actually opened this whole discussion up, as many people (myself included) were completely unaware of how there seems to be cases when it kind of is used for punishment. Asking whether things are clear to the average user (including me). Everything you've said seems to indicate that they're not. Commented Jan 24, 2012 at 15:55
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    Well, as far as I can tell, there are four users involved in the discussion, where you are the only one disagreeing. Your question has a score of 4/4, my answer has a score of 7/0. As voting on Meta is generally used to show agreement / disagreement, I think that's pretty obvious.
    – slhck
    Commented Jan 24, 2012 at 16:10
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    Really? EBGreen has stated that complete the lack of information on the site regarding voting is a "strength", and yet you've gone and pointed to the deeper page where there is a page about this in the "privileges" section. So it seems that both EBGreen and myself where completely unaware that guidelines existed in such a form. That's evidence that the site guidelines are NOT visible from two of the four users involved in this discussion. Half of them. There's many other examples on this page, too. If you want to ignore them, feel free, but don't pretend there isn't any. Commented Jan 24, 2012 at 16:17
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    I would appreciate if you let me speak for myself. I said (or at least my intention was) that the FAQ regarding downvotes was left intentionally vague and that this was a strength. I still hold that position. I am aware of the further guidelines that can be reached via the priveleges->downvoting link. If you will notice, even these further guidelines are actually pretty vague in my opinion. Nowhere will you find a specific all encompassing list of reasons to downvote. The guideline seems to be "Does the question at least not make the site worse". Off topic questions do imo.
    – EBGreen
    Commented Jan 24, 2012 at 17:25
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    @JohnnyW What is your problem? Your question is whether people understand the guidelines or are aware of them. Am I right? In my belief they are. Period. I've already said that above. The guidelines are visible, and they are precise enough. You still haven't posted any examples that would show otherwise.
    – slhck
    Commented Jan 24, 2012 at 21:39
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    I'm not reading all that. I didn't realize people cared so much about the instructions on two friggin arrow. Seriously, at least in the States, it's a free country. You can downvote for bad grammar if you want.
    – surfasb
    Commented Jan 25, 2012 at 8:13

in a sense, they're right, but the downvote while its ultimate goal is not to punish, you can't get away from the fact that it does remove one rep point which is kind of a punishment.

It is to alert them to it being wrong, so they notice.. but the fact is that as part of the gamification, there is this rep point thing that mentally provides reward, and removal of that reward, so that is a punishment as a secondary effect even if unintended, or as an additional teaching measure to alert them.

Another possible reason too, for upvotes and downvotes (and this may not be popular) is the higher voted ones come up higher, and so they indicate the value of a post. And in such a situation, somebody might reason ah, this question is bad but not bad enough to have -3. Or the converse, that it's not very good but not bad enough for -1. Or that it's rather useless and shouldn't have 3. Since the votes it has acts like rating, and a person may reason that it shouldn't be over or under rated.


Johnny, One of the things pointed out , the FAQs are not as clear as they need to be. on the other side of that, people are not going to read a whole book to ask a simple question.

There either is some imperfection and interpretation in the understanding , or there is 300 page loads of rules data, that I sure as heck am not going to read.

On one side it needs full clarity instead of Ghestapo descisions based on few, on the other side achieving full clarity requires either having been bashed around till you find the niche the site and questions fit into, or having to read a massive book on what is and isnt allowable and approved of.

Even with this 300 page massive book of SU Legislated point by point facts on what is and what isn't allowed/approved. Debating each point can continue till the cows come home still. Picking and nitpicking points out of the huge legislation could then be applied to concider EACH question as good or bad, and debate that till the world ends.

Often the issue with "useful" downvoting, is it "isn't useful to WHO?" Well I dont give a flying leap about your question, so it isn't useful to me :-). or I don't want to see the site direction head to that type of question, So get Outta here with it. Is it not useful because I cannot even read it, so what is the use in that :-)

Want to see a question Upvoted? Ask a question that Many Many people already asked before, and many people Know the answer to already??? Yes, I am saying that the lamest least researched questions, can achieve the highest upvote. Then will be turned down for being a Duplicate :-) .

The question didnt "show any research effort" Because I can find 10 answers that don't work with a single web search :-) . It is obvious that it isn't well researched , if I found an answer to it by researching. 80% of the questions on this site already fit that catagory, they have some answer on the web, FINDING it , or finding the right one, or even knowing WHAT to research for, what words to use in the search, that is different.

I feel the "doesn't show research" would put 80% of the questions into the get outta here catagory. Leaving nobody with any form of REP for having answered :-) Nothing left on the site but a bunch of questions that can barely be answered to begin with.

The purpose of being able to ask a "Question", that is more specific to your situation, would be to talk to humans, instead of reading (again) a 300 page book (so called research) that has the answer in it like a needle in a haystack. Humans who are well researched, or better Experienced, in a particular question (that is not researched well enough) get thier REP by using the info they know, or know-how to research. Information is transfered via Human Data Brain transfer, this is a good thing.

A "not researched" question, can end up applying to a "Not Documented" question. A single sentace question, that said "I have this problem" , but does nothing to tell us "I already tried these Things to try and solve it". By default it is not researched , because the user did not display that they tried loads of garbage on the web to try and solve it, even if some of those would make the problem far worse :-)

When it comes to some of the tactics used to determine how the "Tyranny of the Majority" will be applied, the eventuality of it will be towards the majority. Creating a site only for the majority.

Does that mean the site is a Social experiment in majority rules, mob and crowd behaviour :-) If it was it is failing in that respect , because even with the crasy mob rules in existance , the site does loosly follow the original intents. People are on the most part not being left out when they ask questions that the Mob doesn't care about. If the MOB is stoning your question in the town square, thats how it works.

If users are going to waste bullets trying to shoot people down , at least they still have to pay 2c a piece for them :-) If the ghestapo crashes in and tosses the whole thing, well we voted for them, hang around at election, and be one of the <10% that voted for them.

My opinion on DownVoting an Answer: The person Tried at least, got a Better one we would love to hear it. There is a flaw in the answer, know the flaw? then tell what it is. Best is Have a better answer, then Put it in.

My opinion on a downvoted question: Why dont the Same people who find it so nesssiary to downvote a bad question, make some of the same effort to Upvote the good ones?

When it comes to lynchings the whole town shows up :-) When it comes to praise for doing the right thing, that is already an expectation.


I would say that the difference that we were having was over the definition of a poorly asked question. You knew that you should not have asked the question. In my mind someone that asks a question that knows it should not be asked in the first place is asking a poorly asked question. I routinely flag off-topic questions without any down vote. I downvoted yours specifically because you knew you should not ask it and you knew it was not a fit for the site.

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    That's actually not true. I began my question with the acknowledgement that it might not fit the criteria for this site, but that I would do my best to make it as specific as possible. As no point did I say, "I know I shouldn't be asking this." Commented Jan 23, 2012 at 16:38
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    Regardless, the voting system is not here for you to personally administer your version of justice. As someone with 15K across all of the Stack sites, it absolutely boggles my mind that you openly admit to being completely unaware of this. I think it highlights a problem that deserves to be solved: Educating users on the right and wrong ways of using the site. Commented Jan 23, 2012 at 16:40
  • You are correct, but you did know that it was questionable and at best a poor fit.
    – EBGreen
    Commented Jan 23, 2012 at 16:40
  • I don't consider it as justice. I consider it education.
    – EBGreen
    Commented Jan 23, 2012 at 16:41
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    So you claim that I was aware of doing something wrong, so deserved to be downvoted, but you also claim you were educating me of doing something wrong. It can't be both. Which is it? Commented Jan 23, 2012 at 16:45
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    I am well aware of what is in the FAQ. I also know that there is intentionally a good bit of wiggle room in the interpretation of the site rules. I did flag the question. I just happen to interpret the voting system as a way to show people bad questions period. I'm sorry that this does not fit your interpretation of the site guidelines.
    – EBGreen
    Commented Jan 23, 2012 at 16:47
  • "So you claim that I was aware of doing something wrong, so deserved to be downvoted, but you also claim you were educating me of doing something wrong. It can't be both. Which is it?" - Just helping to confirm and reinforce your feeling that the question was not a good fit for the site.
    – EBGreen
    Commented Jan 23, 2012 at 16:48
  • A third reason? Now it's to reinforce a niggling doubt: That the question was off-topic. And yet the voting system is there to help a user understand that their question has been poorly asked. E.g. It is lacking in research, is too vague, or is unlikely to be of use. This, I might add, isn't about you, or my question, but rather a larger issue I've seen across all the Stack sites. I worry that users are gaining privileges without being properly educated as to how they should be used, and whenever I see problems like this I feel it indicates a failure of StackEx to educate users. Commented Jan 23, 2012 at 16:51
  • " I feel this indicates a failure of StackEx to educate users on how the site and community is designed to function." - you see it as a failure to educate the community on how you think it should operate. In any community like this there will be differences in opinion. I don't think you are the final arbiter on how the community as a whole should behave, but I suppose it is possible that I am wrong.
    – EBGreen
    Commented Jan 23, 2012 at 16:54
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    Hmm. So by your definition then, I wasn't wrong to post a question that might not be within the FAQ specification, because, as you keep saying, the site "guidelines" are there to be "interpreted"? Right? You can't have it both ways! (And this is the whole point of me having this discussion with you.) The clear guidelines on this site are being ignored/misapplied in some situations, and strictly enforced to the letter in other situations. Either the guidelines are wrong, or people are misusing the tools. Commented Jan 23, 2012 at 17:05
  • Hmm! It seems the guidelines ARE wrong: meta.stackexchange.com/questions/84978/… Commented Jan 23, 2012 at 17:19
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    No, they are not. You are confusing two things I think. One: sometimes people want to downvote, but don't want to use up their votes on this, and two, some people don't think it deserves a downvote at all. To balance these two they use Community to downvote the question. If the expectation was that every person that thinks that the post is off topic should downvote, then every close post should have up to a -5 in the vote count. That is clearly not the case.
    – soandos
    Commented Jan 23, 2012 at 18:02

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