I am asking this question because more and more frequently, I feel that people treat and experience downvotes as offensive. To give one example, I just stumbled across this question:

Why is true that $\forall n \in \mathbb{N}$ there is exist irreducible polynomial of degree $n$?

which at the time had a score of $-2 + 2 = 0$, so two downvotes and two upvotes. There also was a comment stating:

"why the downvotes? He is a fairly new contributor (4 questions asked), let him know his mistake."

Now, I am somewhat confused and would like to ask for clarification: Is a downvote considered offensive or insulting? Why does the feature even exist if it is considered so? I thought that it was perfectly fine to downvote a question which misses context.

I am asking because a downvote is a really easy way for me to communicate that something needs improvement, while explaining it in a comment requires the bit of effort that might just keep me from doing it, especially on mobile. I understand that an explanation is better, but isn't a downvote better than nothing?

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    Lots of people take downvotes as a remark on themselves rather on the contents of their post. Sometimes this is indeed the case (many people have received targeted votes), but sometimes it's not but still perceived as some form of rudeness. It is not meant to be the case, though. – Asaf Karagila Sep 9 at 10:39
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    Quite often, the problem lies not so much in the downvote itself but in the fact that whover downvoted did not post a comment explaining why he or she did that. – José Carlos Santos Sep 9 at 11:18
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    "I am asking because a downvote is a really easy way for me to communicate that something needs improvement...." Easy, yes, but not very effective, in that it doesn't communicate to the recipient just what needs improvement. Especially a new contributor who isn't familiar with the ways of our site, gets essentially nothing from a downvote, except the message that she's not wanted here. – Gerry Myerson Sep 9 at 11:27
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    @GerryMyerson while I partly agree with that (as detailed in my answer) also a new user operating with some consideration and good will could based on a downvoted go back and (re)read the advice that they just got or additional documentation and then realize that they did not follow it. Then they could reasonably be expected to conclude that is the reason for the vote (which most often will be true). And if they are unwilling to follow this advice, then in fact they also drew the correct conclusion. As indeed in this case they are not wanted here. – quid Sep 9 at 12:01
  • In this case there is an explanation. – user202729 Sep 9 at 13:49
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    @JoséCarlosSantos I used to provide a reason every time I cast a downvote, but quickly fell out of that habit after the number of harassing comments and emails I received. It's a real pity - there is a very strong incentive against communicating the reasons that a post is deficient. – T. Bongers Sep 9 at 17:58
  • @T.Bongers for this problem can be a solution: imagine that an user can downvote a post of a new user, I say a typical question of a student which is the case that most concerns to me, and also has the privilege to add a comment with pedagogical/didactic content commenting anonymously on the first few posts of the new user that we are evoking. This can be positive because in this ficticious situation the new user could have been asked if he/she will accept that in their first 5 first posts, there will be anonymous mentors doing this activity. – user243301 Sep 9 at 20:25
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    @user243301 If a new user doesn't bother reading all the information they're provided with leading up to posting their first question (even after clicking through some checkboxes) then an anonymous comment is unlikely to be helpful. – T. Bongers Sep 9 at 20:32
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    No, downvotes are not objectively offensive, nor intended to be offensive to the recipient, except for the occasional targeted downvote, which is cast as a form of retaliation, agitation, but in no way objectively cast on the basis of the question/answer. In general, offense taken by the recipient in the first case is due to misunderstanding that legit downvotes address the one specific question/answer, and are not intended to be taken personally. – amWhy Sep 10 at 17:09
  • Offense taken by the recipient, after challenging another user in a comment, then receiving an immediate downvote, is understandable, which may be just one of a handful of scenarios in which the reason for a downvote is do to the downvoter's desire to get retribution, to punish, etc; one can flag in such cases. – amWhy Sep 10 at 17:14
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    I think the downvote is not constructive. It is better to take things with discussion to clarify things instead of downvoting a question. Don't forget, many of these downvotes are unexplained. If a question is not very good, keep it with zero vote. I see downvoting as an easy way for some to say that I don't like the question, often without saying much why. I am sure many users (new and not-so-new) would be more engaging, and willing to accept criticism if taken by patience and respect, instead of signaling to them they are incompetent in asking questions, and lazy for searching a question. – BlackMath Sep 11 at 4:04
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    "Offensive" is the wrong word. I think it's "discouraging" (to new users) or "slightly punitive", as it lowers reputation (unless the person is on 1 rep). – Theo Bendit Sep 12 at 0:03
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    When I entered to this community for the first time, I got so many downvotes I didn't see that offensive, but, that let me knew that I had something wrong. Now I ask better questions – Enigsis Sep 12 at 2:51
  • Downvotes are a good mechanism for dealing with very low quality garbage. Unfortunately, some users also choose to downvote high quality questions with no explanation. – Qudit Sep 12 at 16:40
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    When I see a person making a mistake in an answer I make a comment and give a chance to the person to correct the answer. Since nobody is under any obligation to post an answer to any question I think we should be courteous and avoid downvoting keeping in mind those who get offended by downvotes. – Kavi Rama Murthy Sep 13 at 7:54
up vote 14 down vote accepted

You say:

I am asking because a downvote is a really easy way for me to communicate that something needs improvement,[...]

and

I understand that an explanation is better, but isn't a downvote better than nothing?

This is mostly true, and basically the design-idea. However, it can lead to the following situation. "Alright. There is a problem with my post. Let me see. [Check.] But it seems good to me. What to do?!" This can be frustrating. Not only is one left with negative feedback, one does not even know why or what to do about it.

That said, there are also (regular) users that persistently refuse to accept that a certain aspect of their post(s) is perceived as problematic. I would then consider the above-mentioned frustration as self-inflicted. In these cases, comments that complain should be flagged so that they can be deleted.

Thus, when you cast a down-vote without explanation a question to keep in mind is "How likely is it that the message behind the vote will be understood by the post-owner and/or readers at large?" (the latter is also important, some even argue that for votes it is mostly this) another is "Is this vote adding something?"

If a somebody posts something (seemingly in good-faith) that is not good, it is alright even desirable to let them know (via a vote and/or comment). However, once they received this information it becomes less clear what purpose additional negative feedback serves.

A forceful reaction can make sense for bad-faith contributions. But on a good-faith contribution to pile-on negative feedback, is can be not only not useful but even counter productive.

I am not against down-votes not even against unexplained down-votes, but as everything on the site they should be handled with consideration. Casting the sixth downvote on a post at minus five (especially of a newish user) most often does not serve any purpose and thus is better avoided.

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    I'm not sure the design idea is to communicate with the author of a post. It also communicates with everyone else and that might be more important. Also, downvotes do not just communicate, they also incentivize. – Michael Greinecker Sep 9 at 12:40
  • Regarding the 'everyone else' yes as I wrote '"How likely is it that the message behind the vote will be understood by the post-owner and/or readers at large?" (the latter is also important, some even argue that for votes it is mostly this)' Regarding the incentivizing yes I glossed over this a bit, I'd consider the loss of points also as a form of communication. One could argue that the additional loss of points thus justifies additional downvotes, which sometimes can be true but for a user with 1 point it is not. Even generally this doesn't work well, as 'counter votes' destroy it. – quid Sep 9 at 13:30
  • About "one does not even know why or what to do about it": they can ask on meta what's wrong with the post. – user202729 Sep 9 at 13:52
  • @user202729 that misses the point, and also would not always work well. But yeah at some point I even started a dedicated chat-room for this. – quid Sep 9 at 14:07
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    But additional downvotes do serve to send a signal that to search engines that the question is not good. Ideally, a user gets the message and improves the question (comments would be helpful here); but if the question is not improved, then the additional downvotes demote the question in search. – Xander Henderson Sep 9 at 14:49
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    @Xander I am not sure that search-engines take the score into account. Anyway, for the type of question where this is mostly relevant they should be deleted down the road anyway. Regarding the get the message and improve, I think that there is a psychological trade-off there. If I am new to this site and I have a post at -1 and I am encouraged to improve it then I might consider it as reasonable to get back at 0 or even a plus score. If I am in a deep hole of -5, I might just abandon and repost. I don't say that additional dv are completely without effect, but it's not clear cut. – quid Sep 9 at 15:29
  • I disagree with this answer, since it takes the premise that the only purpose of downvoting is to communicate with an author. – Hurkyl Sep 9 at 18:04
  • @Hurkyl I must conclude that you did not really read it, then. Also see my first comment. – quid Sep 9 at 18:05
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    @quid: Okay, I overlooked a short phrase nodding to communicating to other readers buried on a post focusing entirely on communication to the post author. I don't think that counts as "not really reading it". – Hurkyl Sep 9 at 18:07
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    If the question is "Is the act of downvoting inherently offensive" the answer is "no." I'm sure downvotes can be used offensively somehow, but it seems to me most users use them to actually indicate a real problem. That is not to say they cast the vote for the right reason, but just that quite often the post does have some palpable problem. That is, whenever I see downvotes gathering on something, usually it is clear there is a problem. – rschwieb Sep 11 at 13:21
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    Suddenly I wonder: has anyone ever proposed a moderator ability to "vote reset"? In the case where a question accrues mostly negative votes, and then is turned around by good editing, it would be interesting if a button push could set it back to 0/0. It probably wouldn't be applied enough to warrant implementation, though... – rschwieb Sep 11 at 13:25
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    The discussion about successive downvotes warrants some figures IMO. We need to know how often this happens and to which posts (e.g. deleted ones for spam/offensive reasons are obviously exempt). My gut feeling is that this problem is negligible in the light of things. – Lord_Farin Sep 11 at 15:01
  • @Lord_Farin what specifically do you want to know it's certainly not rare that a question that gets a downvote gets more than one. – quid Sep 16 at 18:07
  • @rschwieb I am not sure if I wanted to be in charge of that feature. ;-) To get rid of dv after an improvement is a challenge though. I like the first comment. I put it in my chat. – quid Sep 16 at 18:12
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    @Lord_Farin about 100 non-deleted Q from last month (august 2018) have score $\le -3$; about 40 have score $\lt -3$. I did not check but I assume that since they are not yet deleted they are not in your categories at least mostly. Plus several 100 deleted ones, almost 500 with score $\le -3$; glancing at the first page of them I did no notice much in your category either. On a total of 13 thousand or something like that. I'd say that's rare but IMO far from negligible. – quid Sep 17 at 20:27

Basically, people get really offended by unexplained downvotes. If you explain a downvote, they tend to still be very offended, but they can at least argue with, harass, and retaliate against whoever downvoted them. They often do this if you explain a problem with their post without downvoting as well. To top it off, people will often feel bad and upvote something they wouldn't otherwise to counteract a mean downvote. Occasionally 2 or 3 people will do this, so a downvote will sometimes contribute to raising the overall score of a bad question/answer and the reputation of whoever posted it.

The voting system is what it is. I would try not to be offended by other people being offended, and just vote and/or give critiques according to how you feel it will affect the site overall.

  • -1. Unexplained downvotes are often malicious. People have downvoted against me out of hatred and malice and because they deny science. – 35093731895230467514051 Sep 15 at 12:42

I've thought a fair amount about the issue of the interpretation of downvotes. It's easy to take the stance that it's just meant as an objective rating of usefulness, relevance, or agreement, depending on the community. There's nothing really wrong with this interpretation, but ultimately it probably doesn't track how most people feel about downvotes. For whatever reason, people really take that little negative number next to their post very personally.

So I personally tend to embrace this fact: to me the purpose of a downvote is to make a user feel bad about themselves. You might think there's never a good reason to do this, but that just isn't true. Sometimes you need to throw someone a stern look. Sometimes you need to tell them off. When somebody makes an extremely low effort post, I think a small dose of the sting of disapproval is probably what they need to not repeat the mistake.

If I think a user needs guidance or correction but doesn't deserve to feel bad, I leave a comment and try to phrase it in a way that comes across as friendly.

This very simple and concrete way of thinking about things has led to alot less torturing myself over whether or not I should downvote something and has the advantage that it's in line with how the user you're "targeting" is likely to interpret the downvote.

Of course this can't possible be an authoritative answer to this question since the meaning of a downvote and when they should be used is completely subjective and varies from user to user, but this was too long for a comment I thought it was a perspective worth sharing.

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