This is mostly an attempt to make the unwritten principle a written one.

The principle, I think, is that we want to help site members improve their questions and answers, so if someone leaves an answer which deserves a downvote, it is helpful and constructive to leave a short comment educating the writer about the reason.

A comment can completely change the tone of a downvote. I am sometimes frustrated by downvotes I receive when I don't understand the reason. On the other hand, a helpful comment can make me think "fair enough - I was wrong there".

I can certainly see some situations where not commenting is perfectly OK:

  • Others have already commented and made your point for you
  • The question / answer is obviously spam
  • There is some other clear indication of what is wrong (I can't think what this might be, however).
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    I'm so tempted to downvote this and not leave a comment just to be a pill. But I'll resist... Somehow... ;-) – Jay Lance Photography Feb 26 '11 at 0:16

It's fine and encouraged to comment on downvote if you feel a comment is warranted.

However, the idea that every downvote requires a comment is not a good one and we do not support that.

For one thing, it leads to a lot of arguments in my experience. Downvotes should encourage self-reflection: what could I do better? How can I improve my post?

There are weeks and weeks of discussion about this on http://meta.stackoverflow.com if you feel like some light reading. But the network policy is what I stated above. Encouraged, but NOT in any way required.

  • You guys consistently ignore the downside of anonymous downvotes, which is childish retribution and vandalism. I don't see that here on Photo.SE, but it's quite common on another stack I'm on. And no, I don't agree that this would lead to more arguments, but it would get rid of the "Why was this downvoted?" comments and add to a generally higher quality for the whole site. If someone isn't willing to stand up and put their name behind a statement that something is wrong, then it's hard to take the statement seriously. The system shouldn't either. – Olin Lathrop Sep 26 at 11:32
  • @OlinLathrop there are a lot of behind the scenes protection for that kind of behavior. I can't get into specifics for what I hope are obvious reasons but at least in 2012, the repercussions were .. severe. – Jeff Atwood Sep 30 at 11:24
  • It seems that just one or two downvotes every few days is not trapped. I seem to get them in bunches of two, maybe three, over the span of a few minutes to hours, then nothing for a few days or sometimes even a week or two. – Olin Lathrop Sep 30 at 12:55

Sounds like you answered your own question. While I think in theory an explanation for a downvote is a good idea, as you note there are exceptions.

One other tactic I'll use is to leave a comment calling out the problem and not vote at all - give the question-asker a chance to edit the question or clean it up if it's fixable. If they never address the problem I might downvote later.

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    "leave a comment calling out the problem and not vote at all", yes that is an important option that we could use more often. It is often forgotten that failing to vote is already a negative criticism. – labnut Feb 25 '11 at 13:26
  • If there are several answers, and the problem one is ranked well below the others, then I'll agree that not voting at all is itself a negative criticism... however, when all the answers have equal scores, such as if it is the only answer, or when it has a higher vote score than a better answer... then not voting isn't really much of a negative criticism. So while I agree with, and practice, the "just don't vote" mentality... there are times when it just doesn't seem like the right choice. – cabbey Feb 28 '11 at 5:36
  • I used to do this more, but then found that too often I never got back to check on whether the problem got fixed. If the post with the error is really worthy of a downvote, then more often I do so immediately, but leave a note to ping me when the problem is fixed so that I can undo the downvote. It is surprising how rarely I get pinged. – Olin Lathrop Sep 26 at 11:35

My general take is that commenting on a down vote can be beneficial for the person, I generally prefer that when people down vote my responses. I wouldn't make it mandatory, it's hard to enforce anyways, but I do like encourage people to do it. I also like seeing people who down vote, leave a comment, and then remove their down vote when the errors are corrected. That seems, to me at least, the biggest benefit of the vote model.

  • And note that the downvoter gets their reputation "spent" on downvoting back when they remove the downvote. – mattdm Feb 25 '11 at 6:18
  • Wait... After a while doesn't your vote get locked in so you can't take it back? I thought that's how it worked... – Jay Lance Photography Feb 26 '11 at 0:13
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    @JayLancePhotography — if the post is edited, votes are unlocked, so you can reward people for improving their posts (or, I guess, vote down if they make it worse). – mattdm Mar 7 '12 at 19:11

I think we should encourage constructive comments, but not particularly discourage simply downvoting. Downvoting costs a small bit of reputation, so it's got its own discouragement built in. But, nonetheless, it adds value to the site even without comments, by helping sort the less helpful answers from the better ones. That's a good thing, and the reputation cost ensures that it can't get too out of control.

(I am given to understand that the site also applies secret background-process checks against systematic downvoting targeting particular questions or individuals.)

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    Crap...this makes me want to go target somebody with systematic downvoting just to see if Joel and Jeff or some SE special ops team drop out of black helicopters to stop me. – rfusca Feb 25 '11 at 5:40
  • @mattdm, good point about the rep cost. – AJ Finch Feb 25 '11 at 10:06
  • Checking for abuse of down votes would certainly be sensible. – labnut Feb 25 '11 at 13:32
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    There is a tool available to moderators that shows suspicious voting patterns. @mattdm hit the nail on the head here, we simply encourage commenting because it is nice to know why you've been downvoted. – chills42 Feb 25 '11 at 18:49
  • note that downvotes on questions no longer cost rep to the casting voter. – Jeff Atwood May 31 '11 at 4:16
  • @Jeff - it is my impression that since that change, we're seeing more downvotes on questions without a comment added. For better or worse I can't say. – mattdm May 31 '11 at 13:12
  • While downvoting adds value from a sorting perspective, I would argue that it adds noise every time someone says, "huh? why did this get downvoted?" I've seen a number of seemingly legitimate questions with -1's. Just doesn't seem right. You'd have to be a troll or way OT to get this kind of treatment on SO. Why would this community be more hostile? – Steve Ross May 31 '11 at 20:51

When you downvote, a yellow box pops up that says "Please leave a comment if you think this post can be improved." So, if it's able to be improved, you should tell the OP how to improve it. However, if you don't think it can be improved (Spam or very offensive), it probably is deserving of a flag.

As I am new here I have to say that it would be very helpful to understand where I have offended, upset or maybe sinned - primarily so that I don't repeat the mistake. Alternatively I can understand why it might make a busy site harder to moderate... pity there isn't something that says "if you are pushing someone's reputation down to under 15, especially if they are new, please explain why" - especially as I can't seem to see who dun it and I am too new to be able to upvote or downvote anyone, so it feels a bit lopsided...

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    Hi, welcome to Photo.SE. It's common to feel a bit offended when receiving your first downvotes. It's only natural. And absolutely, you're right, how can you possibly improve a question or answer if you're not given specific feedback, right? I don't really understand the DV you got either. But don't take it personally. I've found that most people here are fairly generous with the voting. I know it doesn't really help, but hey, welcome to the club! Now you're "one of us"! ;-) – scottbb Sep 25 at 18:35
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    For what it's worth, the site has added some stuff to alert people that they're interacting with new members and to encourage welcoming behavior – mattdm Sep 29 at 1:46
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    Also FWIW I didn't downvote on the answer of yours on which I left a comment. Kind of for this exact reason. It looks like someone else did, though. – mattdm Sep 29 at 1:46
  • @scottdb Thank you - you are right - it has now made me feel accepted :) even if it was puzzling. – GMGP Sep 29 at 17:56
  • @mattdm That is good news, and I think very practical for the longevity of any forum - we try and warn people in the Facebook Groups I mod, having an automated system is a great idea... and I didn't think for a minute that you had done it - else I am sure you would have said and explained it. :) – GMGP Sep 29 at 17:56

The FAQ says this, under the heading 'Be Honest'

"If you see misinformation, vote it down. Add comments indicating what, specifically, is wrong."

This seems to make it clear that when we down-vote we should add comments.
So in answer to your question, it is more than poor etiquette, it is bad practice to not explain a down-vote.

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    I think you're linking those two sentences too strongly. The next sentence in is "Provide better answers of your own.". Is it also bad practice to not leave a better answer? Nah. The FAQ is just giving examples of how to contribute, not mandating commenting. – mattdm Feb 28 '11 at 17:58

If you downvote, you clearly indicate disagreement. You should voice that disagreement. If you can't voice it, either keep quiet or use some other way to indicate it (like flagging the question or answer as inappropriate if you feel it is that).

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