Up/Down?

Is the comment voting feature serving its purpose?

We instituted an early version of the comment voting feature years ago with the intention of allowing community members to signal to others that a particular comment was unhelpful to the conversation. Has the voting itself become unhelpful?

Despite various tweaks, the feature never worked as intended. It’s almost always used to signal “I agree/disagree with the idea expressed” rather than to single out trolls, off-topic observations, argumentative fallacies and the like. But we’ve kept it because 1) regular commenters have regularly indicated they like it (indeed, there was a clamor for it to return after the most recent site design killed it because the old plugin was buggy) and 2) regulars indicated that downvoting particularly annoying commenters was preferable to derailing the thread with comments that said nothing more substantive than “Yay!” or “Boo!”

Increasingly, though, it seems that it’s deployed against commenters rather than comments. I’ve noticed, in particular, that the few remaining conservative-leaning commenters will get downvoted for perfectly benign, fact-based statements—sometimes even those that have nothing to do with politics. If it’s just going to be another form of mob behavior, it’s outlived its usefulness.

UPDATE (5/26): It seems that most commenters like the feature and think it mostly serves the original purpose. Many would like options other than up or down; I may explore finding a plugin that does that in the future.

It does seem that many use the downvote feature to punish commenters or views they dislike rather than to signal bad faith. I’m going to experiment with disabling it for a time.

FILED UNDER: OTB History
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. OzarkHillbilly says:

    I never downvote, and the only time I upvote is when somebody brings a substantially new fact into a discussion, or makes me stop and think about a thing in a new to me way.

    I don’t pay much attention to the up or down votes my comments get except to from time to time point and laugh at my trolls who no matter what I say, no matter how benign a statement may be or a recitation is of a simple fact, just have to downvote. Like that is going to hurt my feeling.

    All of which is just a long way to say, “shrug”.

    7
  2. Kathy says:

    I’ve noticed, in particular, that the few remaining conservative-leaning commenters will get downvoted for perfectly benign, fact-based statements—sometimes even those that have nothing to do with politics.

    I do this often.

    I can’t speak for others, but I do it because I figure these people should be treated the way they treat women and minorities: as though they do not matter, have no useful contributions to make, and above all that they are not welcome and should just remain unseen and unheard.

    17
  3. rachel says:

    I use the up/down vote buttons sometimes, but I think the board would be just fine without it.

    1
  4. MarkedMan says:

    I think it still serves the purpose of preventing a “derailing the thread with comments that said nothing more substantive than “Yay!” or “Boo!””, and that’s no small thing. An occasional reminder that downvoting is not meant to signal dislike of the poster might do some good.

    Personally, I almost never downvote, but frequently upvote. There is at least one person who downvotes every one of my comments and, while that violates your intention for the system, I suspect it serves the other purpose – giving the person an alternative to filling up the thread with comments on my general *ssholery.

    8
  5. Sleeping Dog says:

    I seldom, if ever down vote, but do up vote comments which I feel make good points.

    I’ve noticed, in particular, that the few remaining conservative-leaning commenters will get downvoted for perfectly benign, fact-based statements—sometimes even those that have nothing to do with politics.

    I’ve noted this as well and didn’t understand why.

    Also the java script controlling the voting is still buggy. About half the time I click it, instead of one vote I get several, the most being 9.

    It wouldn’t bother me if you dropped the option.

    1
  6. MarkedMan says:

    @rachel:

    I use the up/down vote buttons sometimes, but I think the board would be just fine without it.

    I’m curious if you visited here before it was instituted? It wasn’t unusual to see a popular comment get a dozen replies that simply said “Good comment” and there could be a bunch of good comments per thread.

    Obnoxious comments were even worse, when seemingly everyone had to weigh in at length.

    11
  7. Teve says:

    Increasingly, though, it seems that it’s deployed against commenters rather than comments. I’ve noticed, in particular, that the few remaining conservative-leaning commenters will get downvoted for perfectly benign, fact-based statements—sometimes even those that have nothing to do with politics.

    Is that what’s happening? Or are lots of people downvoting someone who engages in troll behavior? I never downvoted Guano for being conservative, for instance.

    6
  8. MarkedMan says:

    @Sleeping Dog:

    instead of one vote I get several, the most being 9.

    I don’t think that’s what is happening. The votes don’t show up on a comment until another comment is added after. I assume that when I vote Im seeing all the pending upvotes, and also assume this is true for downvotes.

    6
  9. MarkedMan says:

    @Teve: I’ve called exactly that out, more than once.

  10. Kit says:

    There’s only so much that one can ask of the three options (agree, disagree, and no comment). I imagine that taking away the possibility of expressing pleasure or displeasure will result in the number of thread posts (already substantial) exploding with countless “+1″/”-1″ comments.

    Also, I find votes helpful for seeing how my comments were received: the sense of joy at a double-digit upvote, and the deflation of the ego when collective silence greets what I felt was sharp observation. Ouch!

    I rarely downvote ideas, but will admit to occasionally piling on those commenters that the community has grown tired of. If unpopular commenters wish a bit of love, lose the sour tone, put forward a few positive ideas instead of sniping from the sidelines and laying silly traps, and build up some goodwill by spending some time in the forums chatting about non-political subjects. I’ve got one person in mind who I think would just might thrive if s/he just hit the reset button and tried anew.

    I also appreciate the chuckle seeing someone downvote a comment like “puppies are cute”.

    I think that if you look at any post with 100+ comments, you will find that the votes serve a real purpose. And so I’d like to see the system stay as-is.

    12
  11. Jax says:

    It only works about half the time, for me, I can click on either one and it doesn’t register. So I’m pretty ambivalent.

    Now, an LOL button would be great, because sometimes the sarcasm and/or humor comes through even without “in person” tone of voice/inflection, and humor should ALWAYS be rewarded. 😉

    4
  12. Joe says:

    I watch the up/downs to spot trolling comments (heavily downvoted). Otherwise I use up votes for “good point” and “you saved me from having to make that point.”

    6
  13. m.glafmer says:

    Ehh. Rarely comment, and usually with nothing substantive. But I just upvoted comments I appreciate. I think it’s a good tool.

    PS. Didn’t downvote anyone.

    7
  14. al Ameda says:

    I generally think it’s a good feature.
    I will upvote a coment if I agree with the point made and I feel no need to further commetn myself.

    8
  15. Moosebreath says:

    @al Ameda:

    “I generally think it’s a good feature.
    I will upvote a comment if I agree with the point made and I feel no need to further commetn myself.”

    This is where I am as well. I rarely downvote, except when someone is trolling. I also agree with @MarkedMan: that it is far better than lots of “I agree/disagree” comments.

    2
  16. 95 South says:

    The thumbs down votes are an accurate depiction of the character of the site. What good is hiding it? After Kathy’s comment above, I think the only reason I’m sticking around is I don’t want Mister Bluster to feel like he won by harassing me off the site.

    I don’t remember seeing a comment get 10+ votes up and down. It’s a dog pack and a small one at that.

    6
  17. gVOR08 says:

    I sometimes see commenting here as an essay contest. Can I express something in a highly compressed format and get my point across? The up/down votes tell me if I’ve succeeded. Although I do discount the almost automatic one downvote.

    5
  18. CSK says:

    Something I’ve noticed is that the number of up and down votes to a reply tends to dwindle the longer a thread gets, which suggests that many people don’t read much beyond the first ten or so posts. This is a pity, because quite often very good comments are posted by latecomers (relatively speaking) to a thread.

    6
  19. Kylopod says:

    I’ve argued for a while that I’d be perfectly fine if we got rid of the downvote feature, and that I’d prefer something like a “flag” option instead. I myself have rarely used the downvote button; the last time I did was more than a year ago. I have so far reserved it for extreme situations, such as a commenter engaging in what I would regard as hate speech, or an obvious spammer. I never use it just to say “I disagree,” and I’ve even resisted using it toward commenters I regard as trolls.

    2
  20. drj says:

    @95 South:

    The thumbs down votes are an accurate depiction of the character of the site.

    Obviously. Because that time you said something sensible, you were downvoted into oblivion.

    Except that wasn’t what happened. Quite the opposite, actually.

    Maybe you should assess the quality of your contributions instead of complaining about all those mean downvoters.

    12
  21. Pylon says:

    “ I’ve noticed, in particular, that the few remaining conservative-leaning commenters will get downvoted for perfectly benign, fact-based statements—sometimes even those that have nothing to do with politics.“

    This happens so rarely as to be pretty insignificant. Even with posts that at 90% benign, there’s almost always a little one liner or coded language thrown in that destroys the credibility post.

    8
  22. Michael Cain says:

    Meaningful comment moderation is always tricky, and can get insanely complicated. The system Slashdot used during its heyday is a good example. Mod points were used to make comments more or less visible — for example, filtering out comments that had net negative ratings and the entire subthreads that went with them. To avoid drive-by up- or down-ratings, only registered users got mod points. Users got only a limited number of mod points, so they were a scarce resource to be used carefully. To avoid conflict of interest scenarios, people with mod points could either comment on a post, or assign mod points to comments on a post, but not both. To deal with the commenter vs comment problem, they introduced meta-moderation where the user community rated the use of mod points as appropriate or not. If too many users thought the mod points were used inappropriately, the person who was behaving badly simply didn’t get any more mod points to distribute. Once upon a time I looked at Slashcode, the open source platform used by the site for a long time. As I recall, the moderation system was a significant amount of code all by itself.

    Part of what made it work in those days was the huge number of readers. That made moderation a largely anonymous process, since almost no one could keep track of who was who. Moderation has, at least to my knowledge, never worked well in a small relatively closed community. In a sort of catch-22, the people you need to hear from on this subject are the people who aren’t regulars, who don’t comment. Kathy’s first comment on this post has (as I type) seven thumbs up and three down. That probably has no effect on regular readers. It may be useful information for those who are infrequent readers. Do you think OTB has a big group of occasional readers? Keep the ranking system. Not so much? Toss it.

    1
  23. Mister Bluster says:

    @95 South:..I think the only reason I’m sticking around is I don’t want Mister Bluster to feel like he won by harassing me off the site.

    Yeah, thats my goal for sure! To run you off my turf!
    What a weenie!

    6
  24. Tim says:

    Just to make a point about the uselessness of the down button, I down-voted every single comment in this thread so far. Call it a protest.

    If people like having a button to avoid having ten posts saying nothing more than “I agree” or “Good comment”, then keep the up button but get rid of the down button. I agree that people here tend to use the down button against the poster and not their comment. It’s a bit useless in that regard.

    One button! That’s my vote!

    3
  25. Tim says:

    @Tim:

    One button! That’s my vote!

    Alternatively, you could be like Slack, a chat/discussion/teaming software used by various groups and companies. Their platform lets you offer a reaction using any of the hundreds of emojis available. Imagine the commenters here seeing the “pukeface” or “poop” emojis in response to their posts! (and yes, I’m KIDDING…… honest!)

    2
  26. Mister Bluster says:

    This whole system is rigged!
    I discovered that I could cast one UpVote for my own comments a while back.
    I’m going to try it again after I post this comment.

    See! there it is again! I upvoted myself! Rigged I tell you!

    4
  27. Michael Reynolds says:

    I seldom down vote. I tend to use the upvote the way I use the Twitter ‘like’ button, just to indicate that I’ve read it. But I’ll admit to inconsistency.

    4
  28. Michael Cain says:

    @Tim:

    Just to make a point about the uselessness of the down button, I down-voted every single comment in this thread so far. Call it a protest.

    This comment is about neither the comment per se or the commenter.

    Here’s an example of all the things that are wrong with the thumbs-up thumbs-down system used on this site (see my comment above about Slashdot’s system). Readers can both comment, and rate other comments, on a particular post. There’s no limit on how many comments a reader can rate. There’s no indication of why a thumbs-down was given. There’s no feedback mechanism that would “punish” a reader for using the thumbs-down inappropriately or reward them for using it properly.

    But I’m a strange dude, who believes the purpose of a comment rating system ought to be to push community behavior in the direction of using the platform well, not as a popularity contest.

  29. drj says:

    @Michael Cain:

    But I’m a strange dude, who believes the purpose of comment rating system ought to be to push community behavior in the direction of using the platform well, not as a popularity contest.

    Pretty much everyone would agree on this. I think the up/downvote feature is crude, but workable; and better than the alternatives.

    What would you suggest for a place like OTB?

    2
  30. Slugger says:

    Upvotes are understandable; it is a simple small amount of applause. Downvotes require explanation, and I wish downvoters would comment rather than just downvote. I have seen downvotes on some of my extremely sapient remarks, and just in case that I might have failed to consider everything I’d like to hear more. On Youtube you can find downvotes on everything: Horowitz playing the Rachmaninoff third, Glenn Gould playing the Goldberg Variations, Stevie Ray Vaughn playing Voodoo Chile, all of these transcendent performances have downvotes.
    Use the upvote as an attaboy. Post your ideas instead of downvoting.

    4
  31. Kathy says:

    I don’t think we need more moderation. After all, this is not a message board.

    And that’s a good thing. Threads keep changing every day, rather than hanging on and growing. Often people locked in a flame war go on simply because it’s still accessible. Here, it’s rare to read or post on a thread more than two days.

    That’s not the reason the comments section here is more civilized, but it accounts, in part, for the lack of ongoing conflict.

    Oh, sure, some trolls keep trying, and they even get some to engage. But I, and I presume others as well, can just ignore them, because they won’t be harping on the same point in the same way over and over in a thread that never dies. They’ll have some other petty, largely fallacious argument on something else tomorrow, but that’s just as easy to ignore.

    6
  32. Gustopher says:

    I think that getting rid of them would add a lot of “you’re wrong!” posts, with a lot of ad hominem attacks and animosity and create running feuds. For instance, I wish Mister Bluster would just downvote 95 South and otherwise shut the fuck up because their recent interplay is tedious as fucking hell.

    Ahem.

    See, there are some things that are best expressed in a downvote button.

    But it’s your site, and if you want to try going without them and see what happens, go for it.

    Does the software give any other options than on and off? Capping up and down at 5 might be interesting. Poop emojis would be lovely.

    4
  33. Mister Bluster says:

    @Gustopher:..For instance, I wish Mister Bluster would just downvote 95 South and otherwise shut the fuck up because their recent interplay is tedious as fucking hell.

    So far this year I may have cast one dnvote. Some here seem to think dnvotes should be accompanied with an explanation. Clearly that option is already available.
    “I dnvoted Zippy because anyone can see that cats are far superior to dogs and Zip is a nitwit to suggest otherwise.”

    I am as happy as a clam at high tide about all the attention I am getting!
    I almost regret my remark yesterday that I have never stated anywhere that my posts are required reading.
    But upon sober reflection I must say that it still holds.

    2
  34. Raoul says:

    For me the function has two purposes: If someone gets over a 10 up-votes I am more prone to pay attention. I also follow up on my own comments to see if people are reading them. As to down-votes, I rarely pay attention to the matter but occasionally I read something that is so off-base that I actually express my disdain with a down-vote.

    3
  35. Jim Brown 32 says:

    The down votes can go — but I like the upvote. I used this site as a sounding board for my ideas and how they resonate with the white liberal / moderate conservative crowd. The upvotes give me a feel for what lines of persuasion are most resonate for later use in “meat-space”

    3
  36. Jay L Gischer says:

    @Kathy: I understand how you feel, it doesn’t come from nowhere. You carry this anger, and have precious little to do with it.

    I don’t follow suit, because that does not move us toward the sort of culture I want, where your voice is valued, and so are others.

    I don’t really believe that this is zero-sum – that to bring out one voice, another must be silenced. This can happen tactically, though, if one voice or opinion is dominating things, and making it impossible for others to speak. Does that happen in the comment section of a blog run by a private citizen, though? I kinda don’t think so.

    Trolls are different. I’ve had more than one online community destroyed by trolls. It just got too popular, and then it was full of people trying to smear excrement on the walls and flood the zone with junk. They succeeded. So I’m not very tolerant of people trying to do that, but I do try to make a distinction between that and an honest difference of opinion.

    1
  37. MarkedMan says:

    I’ve been saying something for so long I don’t remember where it came from, or perhaps I came up with it: Never fix a problem of management with a process, and never fix a problem of process with management. In this case, James, I think that back in the day you greatly alleviated an impossible to manage problem with a process change: the endless pile up of “atta boy!” or “no way!” replies that collected in the wake of every interesting comment. Adding the up vote/down vote option gave people another way to get things out of their system. But, as in almost everything in life, even with good processes in place, some management is needed. Although I’m certain that sometimes I’m the one that needs to be managed, I also try to push things back to civility on occasion. 95 South gets a lot of grief because people don’t agree with their opinions. I too, often don’t agree. But I’ve tried to call it out from time to time when I thought people were piling on, or pulling down a legitimate post. Ex. “I think anti-Trumpers could get a listen from the pro-Trump card if they didn’t start every conversation with restating that only an idiot could vote for an orange blob.” There are a dozen different productive ways to respond to that, but attacking them over just having that opinion isn’t one.

    I get attacked from time to time here but for the most part I make my case and people either upvote it or downvote it. It doesn’t seem fair that virtually every post from 95 South gets a reply or two questioning their character. I actually look forward to their posts, not because I agree but because I often disagree.

    5
  38. 95 South says:

    @MarkedMan: Thanks.

    3
  39. Teve says:

    95 South gets a lot of grief because people don’t agree with their opinions.

    that’s not why.

    7
  40. Kari Q says:

    Yes, it has.

    1
  41. Kathy says:

    @Jay L Gischer:

    It’s like this:

    One can rationally argue, and differ, about policies as regards taxes, welfare, the environment, immigration, energy, the economy, etc.

    One cannot rationally argue, or differ, with policies like separating families, putting children in cages, building concentration camps for asylum seekers, denying all rights to some minorities, restricting reproductive rights, ignoring all environmental issues, handing money to the wealthy even if it means acquiring debt to do so, policing for profit, restricting voting rights, supporting police brutality, and so much effing more, regardless of who is for such “policies.”

    And let’s not mention supporting someone as incapable, incompetent, and nasty as Donald Trump.

    6
  42. Gustopher says:

    @Teve:

    that’s not why.

    Ol’ 95 has gotten better about explaining themself in their initial comments, rather than posting a one sentence fact or “fact” and expecting that to speak for itself. A lot of the early pushback came from that because they were not really engaging with the community they were simply poking.

    But at this point? The friction comes mostly from disagreements on beliefs and 95’s victim complex which often starts up when someone is being an ass to them. They should learn to let shit go a bit more, rather than engaging in stupid little drawn out feuds with one person after another…

    But, compared to our other right of center commenters? Really very nice.

    2
  43. Gustopher says:

    Also, JKB has yet again repeated the vile and hateful lie that Democratic governors were seeding nursing homes with covid under the threat of force. Will someone please ban his ass if he doesn’t come up with real evidence of this? Do the hosts want to give a platform for spewing incendiary and crazy conspiracy theories?

    Drive-by blood libel is a few steps to far to be tolerated in my opinion. But my opinion isn’t one that matters.

    9
  44. Not the IT Dept. says:

    Is this really something you need to worry about, James? Why people use a feature that is limited in what it can show about a comment? Assuming people do – and I am not in agreement with you on this – so what?

    It has no effect on whether people are allowed to continue to post, or whether they’re penalized in any way for what people vote on their comment.

    And I’m in agreement that it’s past time JKB gets called out for his BS on “seeding” covid to deliberately infect others. How this can be allowed is much more important than the up-down button.

    2
  45. James Joyner says:

    @Gustopher:

    Also, JKB has yet again repeated the vile and hateful lie that Democratic governors were seeding nursing homes with covid under the threat of force. Will someone please ban his ass if he doesn’t come up with real evidence of this? Do the hosts want to give a platform for spewing incendiary and crazy conspiracy theories?

    I’d just published a long post on this topic.

    1
  46. PJ says:

    The dislike button should be replaced with an ignore option, let me ignore all the comments of certain people (and perhaps any replies to their comments.)

    Make them all eat pie.

  47. James Joyner says:

    @PJ: While WordPress has been around almost 20 years and has hundreds, if not thousands, of plugins available, there’s surprisingly little out there for commenting. I’ve seen the “pie” idea mentioned in previous rounds of these discussions but have never seen one that does this. Or even multiple options beyond like/dislike.

  48. Kylopod says:

    @James Joyner: Is there any chance that we’ll see fixes to the bugs that have plagued this site for over a year? These include:

    (1) There’s still an error message when hitting “preview.”

    (2) The upvote counter to each comment usually isn’t updated until a new comment is posted to a thread.

    (3) A commenter’s screen name has to be typed out each time a comment is posted. I wouldn’t mind a login option, truthfully, but just having it remember the screen names through cookies would be acceptable.

    (4) When you click on a thread, often it doesn’t show the thread’s most recent update until you hit refresh. The main page also often doesn’t show the latest update until hitting refresh.

  49. HelloWorld! says:

    I think up or down votes should be rationed
    You only get 5 per month

    1