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Archived entry | Matt Wilcox .net

Social websites and voting systems: ditch the down-vote

We’re all familiar with websites that offer the user a chance to vote on an article, comment, or link. The idea is that if you like it you vote up, and if you dislike it you vote down. It seems perfectly reasonable, but there’s a flaw in this idea. If you want a happy community with an emphasis on helpful comments then you need to ditch that ability to down-vote. Either vote up, or don’t vote at all. As your mother may once have told you; if you’ve not got something nice to say, don’t say anything.

From a programming perspective the ability to down-vote is an obvious mirror for the ability to up-vote, and no doubt for most programmers the idea of not providing a mechanism to provide ‘balance’ would seem unnatural. But by thinking programatically we ignore human psychology. Social websites are all about people, so it’s a bad idea to ignore what we know about how people think ad behave.

On an individual user level down-voting is bad for content contributors, and these people are very important to any site that relies on user content. What can a user, who has taken the time and effort to submit content to the site, learn from a simple down-vote? A down vote is a quick and lazy way for a casual reader to register disapproval - but that’s all. There’s no feedback given, no reasoning given, no anything except a mute mark of disapproval. It’s a negative statement from which nothing can be learned. So, understandably, the person who submitted the content in the first place isn’t going to benefit from it, and quite likely will feel sour over it.

Another problem with down-voting is that it provides fuel for petty squabbles which bring down the tone of the entire community. Especially with systems that allow voting on comments. If one user doesn’t like a comment they can down-vote it, even if the comment being down-voted was perfectly correct, or helpful, or informative. It leads to other people writing comments along the lines of “I don’t know why UserX is getting down-voted, but I’m with you”, and then some other user posting “because they are a douche!”, and then it all goes rapidly downhill. The original point is forgotten in some off topic tit-for-tat argument where the users arguing have more emotional investment in their own squabble than on the original post. All sparked off because of lazy down-voting. Accumulated down-votes are like a puddle of gasoline just waiting for a spark, and the internet is full of people who will provide it (see the Greater Internet f***wad Theory).

The main problem with down-voting is that it is lazy feedback. The kind of people that down-vote are often the kind of people that do not leave a comment on why they down-vote. They just down-vote and move on. They down-vote because it’s easy. They down-vote because they can. It’s a lot easier to say to yourself “pft, that’s rubbish” and down-vote, than it is to take the time to compose constructive feedback. In a lot of cases, if the down-vote button wasn’t there, the user wouldn’t bother doing anything at all. Commenting takes effort, clicking down doesn’t.

So, it’s better to not have a down button at all. That way it’s only the people that care enough to write something that will leave any negative feedback. Sure, they might write drivel, but at least there’s a bit of a barrier to lazy negativity. And chances are good that they won’t write drivel anyway.

If you want to see the logic in action, go read threads on Digg, or Reddit, or YouTube to see the fruits of down-voting in action. Then take a look at some video on Vimeo, where there is no down-voting, only up-votes. The results speak for themselves.

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