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

7 Answers 7

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

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.

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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.

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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
    
@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

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

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.

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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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