The Folly of Allowing Up/Down Voting for Individual Comments

We should be past this type of behaviour already. This industry should be about sharing, learning, and growing in knowledge. But too often we do things that allow these areas to be stifled. And it turns people away, causing newcomers to become discouraged and not want to voice their opinions and questions for fear that they’ll be labelled “stupid”.

Of course, we’re all going to slip up in this regard to some degree. I’ve answered people’s questions on this blog in ways that some people thought were rude and condescending. It wasn’t my intent to do that, so I’ve tried to do my best to apologize and keep the conversation going.

When Smashing Magazine added up/down voting for individual comments on their site, I expressed my displeasure over that decision. When they asked me why, I explained:

Proof of this “abuse” was demonstrated in a recent Smashing Magazine article where a harmless question was down-voted more than 30 times. Here’s a screen grab of the comment along with the down votes:

Smashing Magazine's up/down voting for comments

A couple of days before I took that screen shot, the number of downvotes were even higher, at around 35 or so. As you can see from the green “up” thumb, I up-voted the comment.

Are We Scaring Away Newcomers?

If we abuse simple questions in this way, then we’re basically closing the door to allowing new designers and developers to interact with those of us who are more experienced in this field. The good thing is, a few Smashing Magazine readers took exception to the way that comment was down-voted and pointed out how stupid it is to down-vote a simple question.

Maybe the person who posted that question is actually an experienced developer and he’s just always done things a certain way, and was curious as to why the author of the article chose a different method. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. But if the commenter is a newcomer to the field of web design, then it’s worse.

Now this person could be too embarrassed to ever post another comment again for fear of being down-voted into the Hall of Stupidity by a bunch of YouTube-trained egomaniacs. And who knows how many other newcomers will now be too scared to post a comment (especially not with their real name) on Smashing Magazine posts. I think that would be a sad outcome that could easily be resolved by never allowing individual comments to be voted on in a niche industry like ours.

But that doesn’t mean that you can’t reward commenters. As shown below, on CSS-Tricks, Chris Coyier gives a star to good comments — just like we got in Kindergarten when we drawed goodly pictures! :)

Rewarded comments on CSS-Tricks

Thus I propose that blogs should do one of two things:

  • No up/down voting on comments
  • Have a moderator-driven rewards system

This keeps things positive, and will not scare away people who want to ask simple questions, or people who want to voice their support for Flash, or Microsoft — or other types of comments that are viewed as “stupid”.

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8 Responses

  1. Very good point, I think the best way is to encourage people doing great things and reward those who help to improve things and contribute instead of banning or diminishing those who don´t.

    Comment sections will be always full of different kind of views and opinions as it reflect how users interpreted the post and its content, specially in high traffic blogs, as we see in real life not always we agree with all the opinions and the way others perform same activities that us, it doesn´t matter others opinions or view points are not valid or good, we should be more available to help others answering questions if we know how to do that even if it´s simple, and think about it, if it´s simple, simpler and faster to answer. No pain, and almost easier than clicking to vote down!

    Rewarding good comments and also good answers could be a great thing as we can find our doubt in some tutorial thought the same doubt others already answered on the comments below.

    I´ll not need anymore to dig the page to find that information because it´ll be on the top, and an option to see the comments in the original order could be applied too.

    Should I get a star now? Kidding…. nice post keep it…

  2. While I agree that having a moderator monitor and ‘reward’ (by highlighting or ‘starring’) (and ‘punish’ – perhaps by devowling) comments is good idea, I think that having a way for the community to do some of the work of moderation is a good idea. Based on that article you linked to, I can’t see the up/down voting working though, I agree. (I have seen it work though. It may depend on the community.)

    There are certainly bad comments. The comment asking for the manual for a specific camera on a general post about photography is an example. (I would also say that another comment on the article is also a ‘bad’ comment, “Really interesting, I’ll try this right now =)” because it is too short and doesn’t actually add anything to the discussion. I would argue the person needs to explain why they thought it was interesting.)

    The most obvious examples of bad comments are human (and/or bot) generated spam. While a moderator is going to be around watching posts for the first few days or weeks after it is published, they might not be paying attention to older posts. These are the ones most likely to get spam (even if the website has rel=”nofollow” on). There is often times that I’m reading an older, but still interesting, post, and the most recent comments are all spam. It would take me little time to flag these, and I would be happy to help clean up the web. (Though comments really should be closed on older posts to prevent this problem.)

    Also important is to have a minimum character count. The question you highlighted may or may not be a stupid question. I can’t tell because there is no thought process presented along with it. If it is from an experienced web developer, the person should say something like, “why do it that way? I’ve always done it this way and found it quite satisfactory”. If it’s from a new developer, perhaps “why do it that way? I would have thought that having the images and CSS in one folder makes less of a mess on the filesystem” (or whatever, perhaps from a new or experienced dev. maybe “they are both resources”, or “they are both presentational”). OK, I can’t actually think of a stupid reason for that question, but there certainly must be at least one.

    (P.S. you have a little JS thing pop up (’cause I entered HTML code) saying click cancel or OK, but the buttons are yes or no.)

  3. I agree with your line of thinking, although in complex discussions where there are hundreds of comments, downvoting can work sometimes. Especially to hide offtopic comments or comments that add nothing: “I like this!”

    The example you mention seems like a classic case of “social validation”, its a strong mechanism in our brain to do what others do, often sub consciously. Comments that get downvoted get even more downvotes and comments that get a few upvotes end up having lots. For no reason but social validation.

    The only way to have the benefits of downvotes without the abuse is by strong moderation, ultimately leading to a mature community. SM doesn’t have it. Digg.com used to have it. A dutch site tweakers.net definitely has it. It’s rare and its hard work.

    My personal stance is one should never downvote a comment for disagreeing with it. If it’s a valid, on topic and well written comment, it deserves to stay.

  4. Cuteness Overload:

    I think that if a site really, really wants to have a voting system for individual comments, it should never allow any kind of downvoting. I think we all know how downvoting comments tends to be abused by people that don’t really tolerate harmless questions like that one. It’s the poster child of the drawbacks – the massive drawbacks, in my opinion – of allowing downvotes and letting it get out of control, in a community that doesn’t seem to be tolerant of other people’s comments. A simple question should be answered, no matter what, unless it’s really off-topic, but we shouldn’t downvote just because of that. People should have better judgment, but I don’t think that will happen anytime soon, will it?

    I’m not a believer in downvoting, personally. Especially when it can be used to automatically hide comments (thankfully SM doesn’t)

  5. I really don’t like the idea of only having plus only. If you are going to have community feedback, you should include a way to indicate that a comment is not good, as well as that it is good.
    To ‘fine-tune’ the system, you may do things like:

    ‘Cap’ the score (like Slashdot comments have a range of only -1 to 5).

    Restrict community moderation to only logged in members (umm,that’s like Slashdot as well) (only applicable where you have registration).

    Have clearly defined meanings behind the plus/minus buttons. Up might mean that a comment is useful, or interesting, and added something to the discussion. While down, might mean that the comment detracts from the conversation (is spam, flaming or similar). In the case highlighted, with this definitions, the question did not deserve any down votes, as it contributed to the conversation. (Though I still think it should have been longer.)

    I also think that there should not be an aggregate score, but rather the plus and minus votes should be shown separately. It may well be that a post has 50 people hating it, and fifty people loving it, but if the plus and minus votes are just shown added together (50+ -50), no one will know. (It appears to be that SM does it the wrong way for this.)

  6. Alex:

    Comments voting is what realy makes an equal community – people can judge and be judged. They will be thimking twice before posting ‘stupid’ messages.

    Also, I dont think that it is fare to spend time on dumb comments moderarion instead of helping people who have trully interesting questions. If one is lazy enough to read simple tutorial – this is one’s problem and not the community’s.

    Simple solution against “social downvoting” – hide number of votes and reveal it only after voting. The comments below some negative margin (again, not visible before voting) will be collapsed by default.

    • But you’re assuming that everyone should be able to judge what is a “stupid question”. Whose standards is that based on? The example in this article proves that this comment system is detrimental to communication, and stifles beginners who want to ask questions they aren’t experienced in.

      Remember when your teacher in school used to tell you ‘there are no stupid questions’? Well, she was right. That shouldn’t change when we leave school.

      • Totally agree with Louis here, who are you to say that a question is “stupid” Alex? Have you never asked a stupid question before?

        It is incredibly arrogant of us to think that there should be some magical baseline of knowledge that must be reached before we are worthy of asking for help – and the point at which our questions become ‘sensible’ rather than ‘stupid’. If you don’t ask, you don’t learn, and it’s attitudes like yours that are scaring people away from asking and learning.

        I was recently learning about the proper differences between function declarations and function expressions – that’s really basic stuff for an experienced JavaScript Developer, and whilst I just read some articles on the matter to learn the difference, should I have been ashamed to ask for help from some experienced JavaScript Devs if that was what I wanted to because they might find my question stupid? If that’s the way this industry wants to act, well, that’s real sad.

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