# In praise of silence

I want to praise silent downvotes. I think they are underused, underappreciated, and misunderstood. This may be due to statements such as one in down-voting tag wiki:

Downvotes are the community's way of telling peers that their content can be improved.

I think this is totally wrong. Clicking an arrow is not a way to communicate with the OP. Leaving a specific (not copy-pasted) comment that speaks to the mathematical content of their post may be such a way.

Votes are a way to communicate information to readers. They help them sort and filter the content, for example allowing them to read only nonnegatively scored or positively scored questions. I think of $0$ score as neutral, 3-star rating: this is the score the system assigns to a post without knowing anything about it, good or bad. After a post is read, it may be found to be above or below par. "Subpar" is represented by negative numbers, just because SE is not golf.

I think the current effort spent on forcing posters to "improve", rubbing their noses in meta threads etc, is not an effort well spent. I'd like to see a more relaxed approach: "you have a question, cool. I don't think it deserves the default 3 stars (0 score), but whatever — someone may answer anyway." If someone answers, good content is added to the site. If nobody cares to answer, in 30 days the question is automatically deleted. Silently, without any closing-arguing-reopening drama.

You take wheat to cast into the Earth's bosom; your wheat may be mixed with chaff, chopped straw, barn-sweepings, dust and all imaginable rubbish; no matter: you cast it into the kind just Earth; she grows the wheat,—the whole rubbish she silently absorbs, shrouds it in, says nothing of the rubbish. The yellow wheat is growing there; the good Earth is silent about all the rest

Edit 1. I see that for some people it is difficult to tell what is asked here. This is what I ask:

When you come across a question that makes you go ugh, don't rush to the "close" button. Don't copy and paste the latest party resolution as a comment. Don't threaten the OP with potential downvotes, votes to close, the worm that dieth not, or the fire that is not quenched. Just make your ugh audible to others with a downvote. If you really want to add a comment, do it, otherwise move on. Life is short and was meant to be enjoyed.

Edit 2. I clarify that the sentence "If nobody cares to answer, in 30 days the [negatively scored] question is automatically deleted." is not something I propose here; this is something that is already in place across the SE network. Another automatic effect of downvotes is to remove questions from the front page of the site: this happens when they reach the score of -4 or lower.

• I like the simplicity. In my limited experience, it seems that - as much as they claim otherwise - people really do care about their reputation number, and sometimes fight tooth and nail against any downvotes (cf. the guy who calls downvoters "cowards"). So some might object, but I'm with you. – The Chaz 2.0 May 7 '13 at 3:06
• If a question goes unanswered for 30 days it does not mean it is a bad question. – Antonio Vargas May 7 '13 at 3:08
• @TheChaz2.0 It is actually not about the reputation points on down-votes. It is like slapping someone for no reason. I don't mind getting slapped, if you give me a reason for slapping. I don't call people cowards, if they leave a comment after down-voting. Rather, I appreciate them for providing constructive criticism. – user17762 May 7 '13 at 3:22
• @AntonioVargas Negatively scored unanswered questions are automatically removed after 30 days, it's a fact of life. ¶ user17762: we vote on questions and answers, not on users. ¶ If someone wants to offer criticism to the OP along with a rating of the post, they can do that too; but they are in no way obliged to. – 75064 May 7 '13 at 3:22
• @user75064, I didn't notice that the policy was applied to all stackexchange sites. That's interesting. – Antonio Vargas May 7 '13 at 3:28
• Nobody downvotes (or slaps) without a reason. Have you considered the possibility that someone has (as I have) come across you berating a "cowardly downvoter" and decided that any future downvotes should be anonymous? I would certainly not like to have to explain myself to someone who appears to have such a temper. – The Chaz 2.0 May 7 '13 at 3:28
• +1 I agree with this wholeheartedly. – Alex Becker May 7 '13 at 5:33
• -1: This is "I don't care, and neither should you" dressed up in nicer sounding words. I would have given +1 if this was merely in praise of silent downvotes, without the suggestion that it is a solution that does anything at all to assuage peoples' quality concerns. – user14972 May 7 '13 at 6:21
• @Hurkyl Questions rated below -3 are not shown on the front page. Unlike closed questions, which get bumped every time OP tries to bring them up to the "quality standard". This, and autodeletion in a month, are the two least stressful ways to remove low-quality content from the site. – 75064 May 7 '13 at 7:00
• I got a downvote yesterday. Still not entirely sure why. Would have appreciated some feedback. – user1729 May 7 '13 at 8:24
• (Although, when I think about it, I do silently downvote late answers to easy questions. I view this as reputation grabbing, which is a crime.) – user1729 May 7 '13 at 8:28
• @user1729 That seems a strange way to use downvotes to me. I don't think downvotes should be used to punish someone for behavior like that, especially since that behavior doesn't harm the site IMHO. – Alex Becker May 7 '13 at 13:31
• @AlexBecker I am not sure if I want to defend myself here... If someone answers an easy question a day later with an answer which does nothing more than re-state one of the earlier answers then, whether it is true or not, what I am imagining is that they have done nothing more than plagiarise that other answer. – user1729 May 7 '13 at 13:50
• @user1729 Ah, in the case of plagiarism I understand. – Alex Becker May 7 '13 at 16:00
• I like how this post stabilized at +25 -25 votes. I should get a Balanced badge for it. – 75064 May 10 '13 at 14:53

Your post is not really a question, but a request to users. I will answer the question that I feel is at the heart of the post: "Should users leave downvotes without commenting?"

No.

First of all, I disagree with the idea that the votes on a question should be used to direct readers. They should be based on the validity of the question itself, since votes confer reputation to the asker. Many questions that are very in-depth or are based on material not widely known will be of little interest to most readers, but certainly should not be downvoted simply because most people won't find it relevant.

Secondly I also disagree that encouraging users to improve their posts is not "effort well spent". One of the reasons you seem to be proposing silent downvotes is so that questions will be deleted after $30$ days without any "closing-arguing-reopening drama" if they go unanswered, and if they are answered then "good content is added to the site". However, I feel that if downvotes are explained then the question can be improved and is more likely to be answered, and questions that are answered will add $\textit{better}$ content to the site. This may bump the active tab, but I think it is better to have more bumps, and have more, higher quality content on the site than have questions which are edited to become perfectly valid ignored .

• Bravo - I agree wholeheartedly. While a series of downvotes by themselves may point to a problem in the question that the OP should be able to detect upon further examination, what harm does it do to comment about why you downvoted? Further, a single downvote without comment in a sea of upvotes or even no other votes only may reveal that someone didn't like the question. Perhaps there were no other downvotes because nobody else found anything wrong with the question. Who knows? Anyway, have the courage to put your name to criticism. – Ron Gordon May 7 '13 at 13:41
• There are two situations where I feel downvoting without a comment is okay: submitting for/against opinions on meta when the communication will be unambiguous, and on the mainsite when other users have already explained to the poster everything you were going to say about why you personally downvoted. – anon May 7 '13 at 18:21
• @anon Absolutely, two good exceptions. – Tom Oldfield May 7 '13 at 19:28
• To add to @anon's mention, a usual route (which I take) is to upvote the comment and then downvote the post. – J. M. isn't a mathematician May 8 '13 at 2:41

Huh?, you say? That's ridiculous, you say? Nope, it happens all the time.

What message does such a silent downvote send to the readers? Hey, this answer here isn't all what it is trumped up to be! Fine, but in normal intellectual discussions, when one wishes to buck the conventional wisdom, one needs more than silence to help further one's case. Besides, by saying something's wrong with an answer that several in the community liked, and then remaining silent, the effect is to place the burden on the community to do the detective work to find out what must be wrong. Not an action deserving praise in my book.

• A downvote doesn't necessarily mean that something is wrong. The tool-tip only mentions that "this answer is not helpful". That users have different opinions as to what constitutes a "helpful" answer should be expected on a site this large. – user642796 Dec 4 '14 at 19:50
• @ArthurFischer: agreed that the voting is for usefulness. That doesn't change my point: if you are going to think so differently, I think an explanation is owed as to why. – Ron Gordon Dec 4 '14 at 19:57
• I agree, Ron, and I'm always perplexed when my top answers get downvoted. I usually conclude that this is not about the answer, it's about the answerer. So there's nothing I can do about it to improve my post. I will say, however, that sometimes highly voted answers are in fact craptactular, and deserve to be removed. Rarely, though, and usually people will comment in those cases anyway. – Asaf Karagila Dec 4 '14 at 21:45
• How can you tell the difference between a downvote on an answer that already has upvotes, and a downvote on an answer that later gets edited and then attracts upvotes in its revised/improved form? – Gerry Myerson Dec 5 '14 at 0:37
• @GerryMyerson: Not sure, but a comment history sure would help. – Ron Gordon Dec 5 '14 at 1:05
• Shog9 points out here “[the site] largely mitigates the rep damage for the author of down-voted posts by charging only 1/5 of the points granted by a corresponding upvote. If you're getting a single, stray downvote here and there, it might injure your pride, but won't actually have much of an impact on your standing among other users.” – MJD Dec 5 '14 at 1:06
• @MJD: it has little to do with hurt pride or slightly reduced rep. It has everything to do with how the community interprets the result. Usually when I see a highly-upvoted answer with a few downvotes, my gut reaction is to wonder who forgot his or her meds. But then my understanding of people's rational reasons for taking actions kicks in, and this is where I would love some explanation as to why that answer was not useful. (Maybe it skipped a step, I don't know.) – Ron Gordon Dec 5 '14 at 14:35

Here is my take on silent downvotes. I have seen that silent downvotes are of three kinds (as far as my limited experience with MSE shows):

• Those that are applied to some question/answer which has a mistake (as far as mathematical correctness is concerned)
• Those applied on questions/answers which have some obvious poor quality (like lack of clarity, confusing, ambiguous, too short in length to serve even as a hint)
• Those that are applied to answers (and only answers) which are mathematically correct.

Frankly speaking I am only against the last kind of silent downvotes which are applied on mathematically correct answers. Like most of the users of MSE I have received my share of such silent downvotes. I am not really able to comprehend their purpose/usefulness and hence I won't comment much on that. I can only guess their reason that perhaps the downvoter failed to understand the answer and thought that it is incorrect and he did not want to pursue the matter with OP to improve his understanding of the answer.

However to provide a clear picture, I will contrast the situation with the usefulness of "downvotes with comment" based on my own limited experiences. Wherever I have received a downvote with comment I have been able to do one of the following things:

• Improve my answer to the satisfaction of downvoter and this has in general led to an overall improvement in the quality of my answer.
• Convince the downvoter via discussion in comments or on chat that the answer did not deserve a downvote and downvote is reversed to an upvote (lucky me).

On the other hand my downvotes are accompanied with comments and in one recent case I downvoted three different answers to a question and in each case the answer was deleted with my comment upvoted (I assume they understood the mistake in their answer as mentioned in my comment and acted accordingly).

There is an extra effort of adding comment when downvoting, but I believe it serves a much more useful purpose than a silent downvote.

• "I can only guess their reason that perhaps the downvoter failed to understand the answer and thought that it is incorrect and he did not want to pursue the matter with OP to improve his understanding of the answer." At a few occasions I got downvotes on correct answers. Usually they were mediocre answers to poor questions. I always assumed the vote wanted to tell me it was not really worth it to give that answer to that question. Not rarely on reflection I'd have to agree in a way. – quid Aug 4 '16 at 22:04
• @quid: agree. Although it has not happened with my answers, I have noticed such phenomena. But still there are some silent downvotes which are undeserved and i strongly believe they can be reversed if downvoter adds a comment and engages in discussion with answerer. BTW, the rep loss due to such silent downvotes is insignificant and the real problem is that sometimes a better answer comes last when sorted by votes. Because of this reason I tend to read all answers to an interesting question. – Paramanand Singh Aug 5 '16 at 4:31