Q: what commenting norms should we adopt when downvoting?

I have noticed, on a couple of recent occasions, the following sequence of events:

  1. a question or answer receives a downvote (or, for a Q, a vote to close),
  2. the original poster, or another poster, asks why the downvote happened,
  3. the downvoter does not leave a comment explaining the vote.

I'm not sure that we have consensus norms in this situation, nor am I sure what those norms should be:

  • if I get a downvote, I'd obviously like to know why (fixable or unfixable problem with the Q or A? capricious voter?)
  • but if the downvoter leaves a comment, it breaks anonymity (fear of retribution or embarrassment? unsalvageable Q or A? too busy?)

So: what do we want the norms to be here? I can see principled and practical reasons why we would want to protect the anonymity of the vote. But, in the interest of the "let's get smarter together!" ethos of the site, it also seems worthwhile to encourage a norm of downvote + explanation. For the latter to work, we'll need a meta-norm along the lines of "thou shalt not punish a thoughtful downvoter."

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    A little bit related on Meta.
    – nicael
    Commented Nov 7, 2014 at 17:12
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    @nicael is right to point to S.E. Meta posts regarding this topic. This topic is not particular to the Emacs site. IOW, this is really the wrong place to discuss it, IMO. It applies to all S.E. sites, I think.
    – Drew
    Commented Nov 7, 2014 at 23:22
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    @Drew Yes, the topic itself does apply to all SE sites. At the same time, different communities interpret existing standards in different ways. Thus far, nobody has made suggestions that go against official StackExchange policy. We are simply engaging in a healthy dialogue about how we want to handle certain issues as a community. And yes, it is useful to also point people to existing threads on Meta.SE, but that doesn't mean that we shouldn't talk about our take on specific issues here.
    – itsjeyd
    Commented Nov 7, 2014 at 23:37
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    @itsjeyd: Well, go right ahead then. But honestly, do you really think there is an Emacs take on this? I cannot imagine anything specific to Emacs or an Emacs community about this question. But if it makes you feel good then, by all means, go for it. My own advice would be to drop it here and take it up at SE. Just one opinion.
    – Drew
    Commented Nov 8, 2014 at 1:00

2 Answers 2


The way I see it, an "ideal" exchange between OP and downvoter looks like this:

  1. After downvoting, downvoter leaves comment below post describing what they think could be improved.

  2. OP tries to improve post by incorporating suggestions from downvoter.

  3. OP posts comment stating that the post has been edited, @-mentioning downvoter to let them know that the content of the post has changed.

  4. Downvoter removes downvote (or leaves additional instructions on how post could be improved).

I have seen things go down like this on several occasions, and it's always great if there's a productive exchange between OPs and people who comment on their posts. So if there is a norm to strive for, this would be it:

  • Don't downvote unless you think a post has serious flaws (or is beyond salvation and should be closed/deleted). Consider giving OP the benefit of the doubt: Leave constructive criticism in the form of a comment first, and downvote only if OP turns out to be unwilling to improve their post.

  • If you do downvote, leave a comment saying how the post could be improved (or why you think it can not be salvaged). If you are afraid of retaliation, remember that you don't have to disclose that you downvoted the post in your comment.

  • If you receive a downvote and a comment explaining it,

    • don't take it personally. You Are Not Your PostTM.

    • don't retaliate by downvoting posts authored by the person who downvoted you.

    • don't assume that the person who left a critical comment also downvoted you.

    Try to make your own post better instead. If you don't understand the points made by the downvoter, ask follow-up questions.

However, norms like these are not easily enforced. People do take stuff personally, and people will downvote for a variety of questionable reasons. What's more, you currently can not get in trouble for downvoting without leaving a comment. AFAIK, the only thing that can get you reported is serial downvoting (serial upvoting is persecuted as well, but that's beside the point).

So I think the best we can do is lead by example, and point people to this thread if we notice that someone is exhibiting "dispreferred" behavior.

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    No, we should not point people to this thread, IMO. We should delete this thread and point people to relevant threads on SE Meta. (No, I haven't bothered to look them up again, but yes, they exist.) We should really avoid duplicating such stuff and have people miss out on helpful stuff that already exists. Let's not reinvent the wheel. If you really have something new to say about the topic, it would be better to post it on SE Meta - not Emacs Meta.
    – Drew
    Commented Nov 7, 2014 at 23:25

Commenting when downvoting is recommended (this is official: a tooltip appears when you downvote). It is not mandatory.

There are generic reasons for downvoting, listed in the tooltip for the downvote button:

  • For a question: “This question does not show any research effort; it is unclear or not useful” — often a downvote on a question means “you could easily have found the answer if you'd searched on Google”; another common one is “you should have put more effort into writing clearly” (this one is often accompanied by votes to close as unclear).
  • For an answer: “This answer is not useful” — typically because it's wrong.

Many downvoters won't bother repeating their reason for downvoting if they would merely repeat the generic reasons. If one of your questions is downvoted, check whether it's clearly written (meaningful title, appropriate tags, decent English spelling and grammar, include all the relevant facts, omit irrelevant rants, clearly describe what you've done so far and what you want to do, copy-paste any error message, etc.). If one of your answers is downvoted, read the other answers, especially the highest-scoring ones; they may provide a correct analysis of the problem that explains why your approach is wrong.

You cannot contact downvoters. You can't know who downvoted. I've often seen a question with one comment and one downvote, not from the same person (which I knew because I was either the commenter or the downvoter but not the other). If you see a downvote and a comment, don't be confrontational. Don't complain about downvotes, it's never productive. Complaints about downvotes make people more likely to downvote and not comment to avoid any ensuing confrontation.

Once again: explaining downvotes is a good idea, but it is not mandatory, and downvoting without commenting is not against the rules, nor is it in any way rude. Complaints and confrontations about downvotes are likely to make people downvote more and comment less, so don't do it. If you want to understand the reason for a downvote, make sure to take in all the clues: not just the comments, but also the question, the other answers, etc.

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