I propose that:

  • This site's core users MUST much more frequently downvote answers even if they are "only" mediocre or we are going to face a consistent decrease in quality

because (each of these is expanded on at length below):

  1. All (or at least most) our questions are subjective
  2. Anyone can post answers on nearly all our questions
  3. Permissibility of mediocre answers invites more mediocre answers
  4. There is no real incentive to stop posting mediocre answers except DVing

This has been discussed before but I believe is worth a serious revisit at this point.

Also, this is a separate problem from question quality.


What is unique about The Workplace compared to many other SE sites

Questions asked on this site, will, in general, not have an objective answer. There is almost never a "here's THE answer" question asked here. Every single question asked on this site is effectively a subjective question.

From the linked blog post, there are specific qualities desired in subjective answers:

The Back It Up! Principle:

  • Something that happened to you personally
  • Something you can back up with a reference

They talk about how “opinion, by itself, is noise.” They’re not saying that subjective opinions are to be avoided; they’re attempting to mold and shape their inherently subjective Q&A into something constructive, informative and helpful. As it turns out, there is an entire field of subjective “expertise” that has the hallmarks of making great Q&A sites:

Our FAQ even specifically has this text:

Please note that answers should be backed up either with a reference, or experiences that happened to you personally. You should always include in your answer information about why you think your answer is correct.

So as a site, included in the "How Should I Answer?" component of our FAQ is text which requires people to have some sort of "back it up" rule already.

Issue 1:

  • Subjective answers require special care in how they are answered (ie not "here's the answer")

Everyone is an expert here (or can pretend...)

Most people cannot go to StackOverflow and contribute answers to problems outside their expertise or familiarity.

We don't have this luxury. Almost anyone who has worked in any capacity can provide some amount of "answers" to the overwhelming majority of constructive questions asked on this site. Anyone who comes here can contribute their thoughts on questions.

This means we have effectively no barrier to entry on our site (which is great, honestly) for answering questions, so anyone can contribute. This is a huge plus for the long term viability of The Workplace. But the problem is anyone can contribute their thoughts, regardless of whether they constitute a "good" answer or not by our site standards.

This results in

Issue #2:

  • The barrier to entry at The Workplace is incredibly low (ie non-existent)

Low quality or mediocre answers invite similar answers

Prevalence of mediocre answers simply invites more of the similar. Wikipedia has a great article on this topic (officially called Broken window theory). The idea (with respect to crime) is when there is a prevalence of small crimes - graffiti, broken windows, etc - this enables more of the same as well as more serious problems. By targeting the "weaker" crimes police can effectively combat crime as a whole.

This principle is also very true on our Q/A site. Answers which are low quality (say 1 line answers) invite more of the same. We get this problem nearly every time one of our questions appears on the popular questions list.

Not only is this true with really bad answers, it is also true with mediocre answers which do not really fit our site standard for answers described on our FAQ as well as in the link about subjective questions. If we consistently tolerate mediocre answers we are going to slowly have a decrease in overall quality. It is my opinion that we are already on this route - overall answer quality seems to have been slowly decreasing since I first got active on here (hopefully not because of me...) and the overwhelming majority of answers no longer seem to even try to meet the "good subjective answer" characteristics.

Issue #3

  • Consistent mediocre/low quality answers invite more similar answers

Upvoting good answers does NOT do anything to encourage only good answers

It might, but plenty of mediocre answers receive upvotes here too. Is it true that, most often, answers meeting our FAQ have higher vote counts than mediocre answers? Yes. But that doesn't change the fact that many mediocre answers never receive downvotes and in fact often receive upvotes (especially those on popular questions...).

Not downvoting mediocre answers does not discourage them. Sure, the best answers float to the top (normally). But without downvotes there is no incentive to stop posting mediocre bad answers.

Not to mention the whole host of repeated answers we get saying basically the same thing.

A thought experiment: what would happen to average answer quality on this site do if every answer which was mediocre or "meh" received downvotes?

Issue #4:

  • Without downvotes on mediocre answers, there is no incentive to stop posting them
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Are the answers you're referring to up voted? I think we need an example or two. I feel like a lot of low quality posts that are NAA get removed. –  jmort253 Jan 15 '13 at 2:36
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I think this post could be cut down to Without downvotes on mediocre answers, there is no incentive to stop posting them –  ReallyTiredOfThisGame Jan 17 '13 at 19:05
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Start by getting people to not up-vote mediocre answers. Some people will up-vote any opinion they agree with, regardless of quality as an answer. –  Monica Cellio Jan 24 '13 at 15:38
    
@MonicaCellio it is worth keeping in mind that this approach might break in "artificially hot" questions: "There are just too many new visitors to keep things under local community control, and there are just too many new voters and commenters to get things going as designed..." –  gnat Feb 15 '13 at 9:28
    
As an aside... Ohh how i wish "Most people cannot go to StackOverflow and contribute answers to problems outside their expertise or familiarity" would stop them from doing it anyway. –  ReallyTiredOfThisGame Feb 16 '13 at 4:24

3 Answers 3

I would disagree with downvoting mediocre answers just for being mediocre.

The downvote tooltip reads "This answer was not useful", so I don't downvote unless the answer is not useful. This includes unhelpful, low quality, and incorrect answers, but does not include useful mediocre answers.

Where would SO be today if it downvoted mediocre answers and only upvoted high-quality answers? Nobody would answer the thousands of questions that get asked every day because they wouldn't want to spend the time to write an extremely high-quality answer, or face downvotes just because their answer was "mediocre".

As I said in this MSO post about a badge for having a high rep-per-answer ratio:

I disagree with this proposal as its currently phrased since I think it encourages users to only post a few excellent answers instead of many acceptable answers, which I think would be bad for the site due to the number of questions that get asked here.

If we have an "expert" participating in the site, I'd much rather have them answer as many questions as possible instead of spending their time on just a few questions.

I come to SO seeking help with a specific problem, not a tutorial. I value fast and accurate answers that solves my problem. Sure I appreciate users who take the time to explain things in detail to me, however I would much rather have a fast answer to my problem than no answer at all just because someone doesn't want to ruin their answer/rep ratio to get a badge.

In addition, badges are normally used to encourage specific behaviors, and as someone who posts a lot of quick answers here while waiting for some process or another to finish, I would feel like I'm doing something wrong by posting quick short answers instead of taking the time to write a more detailed answer.

Yes I do think we should keep educating users about the "Back it up" rule by leaving comments on answers that are not backed up by facts, references, or personal experience, however I do not think we should be downvoting mediocre answers just because they aren't "expert" quality, especially not if they actually contain useful information.

We should be reserving those for answers that are not actually useful, as the tooltip says, and letting the system work as designed, with the best answers getting voted to the top.

Also in regards to

Overall answer quality seems to have been slowly decreasing since I first got active on here

I have found the opposite. I am consistently impressed by the high quality of the some of the answers on here (many of them yours), and think what you may be noticing is more questions and answers overall as the Workplace gains more visitors.

Sure you may be seeing more mediocre or low-quality answers, but we also have more questions, more answers, and more visitors.

So I would just keep doing what you've been doing: downvoting low quality/incorrect answers, educating and guiding new users about the "Back-it-up" rule or other site guidelines in comments when you see a need for it, and voting up the great questions and answers.

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what would be your take on downvote based on reasoning (...explained with comment if you wish) like this? "this answer does not appear useful because it looks that all its points are better presented in other answers to this question" –  gnat Jan 14 '13 at 21:54
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Rachel, how do you propose preventing repetition in answers, as an alternative to downvoting? –  jmort253 Jan 14 '13 at 22:15
    
especially not if they actually contain useful information. the problem is, that nearly ALL our questions are polls because of their subjective nature - "what do you think I should do?" - which means that we will (and do) have a whole host of answers providing one element of that poll (which might be useful) yet doing so in a way which is completely not in line with the FAQ –  enderland Jan 14 '13 at 23:49
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@enderland - "What do you think I should do?" feels sort of like a get out of jail free card for when you don't have an actual question. Sort of like the Office Politics question. To me, these definitely seem closeable. Then possibly editable. –  jmort253 Jan 15 '13 at 3:19
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Where would SO be today if it downvoted mediocre answers and only upvoted high-quality answers? In a far better place than it is, SO today is one big crapfest. –  Yannis Jan 15 '13 at 22:30
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@YannisRizos Sorry, I disagree. I love SO for it's fast and accurate answers :) –  Rachel Jan 15 '13 at 23:34
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@Rachel - I rarely use SO anymore because its only worthless questions that get answered. I have 2 hard questions out there with out an answer. And one that has an answer of well we don't think you can do that, despite the fact that I was able to get it working. –  ReallyTiredOfThisGame Jan 17 '13 at 19:01
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@Chad: Maybe you need to offer a bounty on those hard questions. –  Jim G. Jun 15 '13 at 16:54
    
@Yannis: C'mon. It's not THAT bad. I rely on SO nearly every day at my job. // Besides, you'll get better results on the front page if you exclude tags that you're not interested in. –  Jim G. Jun 15 '13 at 16:57

From the linked blog post, there are specific qualities desired in subjective answers:

The Back It Up! Principle:

  • Something that happened to you personally
  • Something you can back up with a reference

{...}

Our FAQ even specifically has this text:

Please note that answers should be backed up either with a reference, or experiences that happened to you personally. You should always include in your answer information about why you think your answer is correct.

It's true:

  1. Each answer should be backed up.
  2. You should always include in your answer information about why you think your answer is correct.

...And while many great answers do either cite a source or retell a story based on personal experience - You are not required to do so.

Logic, metaphors, and common-sense can form the backbone of a great answer.

Consider the following historical figures. They would all easily achieve Jon Skeet-like status if they participated in Workplace.SE.

  1. Jesus Christ might use parables to back up His answers.
  2. Aristotle might use logic to back up his answers.
  3. Confucius might appeal to Confucianism (as an ethical and philosophical system) to back up his answers.
  4. Benjamim Franklin might use pithy sayings packing enormous wisdom to back up his answers.

Yet none of them would be too fastidious about citing sources or retelling personal stories!

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Logic is fine, but "common sense" usually isn't as common as you think (and if it is, the question probably should have been closed). The only hypothetical answerer on your list whose answers would likely be any good here is Aristotle, and only if he actually explains his logic. –  Monica Cellio Jun 16 '13 at 19:56
    
@Monica Cellio: "Common Sense" usually isn't as common as you think... And that's exactly why it's so important for our experts to dispense "common sense" to the masses! meta.workplace.stackexchange.com/questions/2187/… –  Jim G. Nov 29 '13 at 16:54

I am against down voting if the post is already at 0. If they are in a positive score and it isn't following the guidelines of WPB then I down vote.

The reason for this is that having a negative score has negative repercussions to people who may over time make a great contribution to the community at a later point.

When you give a negative score people lose a few points, if they are already at a low level they just won't bother responding anymore. In some cases you can even cause their privileges to be revoked for something that they may seem petty.

Having a zero score on the other hand means you haven't been dismissed, but you need to improve if you want get a score.

TL;DR. I'd only down vote if the post broke the rules and it was >0 score. Otherwise I leave a comment asking them to fix the answer. I only down vote if the post is at 0 if it adds absolutely nothing to the discussion or spam.

[edit] In response to @Enderland comment below.

Let's take you for example on one of my posts.

How to convince colleagues about my point of view in a meeting?

I posted a possible answer, which if you had been dealing in that area that I often do, you would know it is a well known technique. It had been up for some time and the OP even responded to it.

Now you came along and down voted it because you were not knowledgable enough to know this. I saw the down vote long before your some what rude/informal comment as to why you down voted (clearly not intentional, but needs work).

I then added what I considered to be pointless background information to make you happy (And you removed the down vote).

Now a better response, would have just to ask for clarification or "can you clean it up so it matches our rules?"

But that I should stress this is me!

Most people would see such a thing and say "Screw this" and leave. In fact nearly every question I look at these days has been deemed closed by moderators which while need improvement, could lead to some excellent discourse. It feels less like an exchange and rather a private chat area for a handful of people.

Try looking at how SO handles such matters. Bad questions aren't just closed. They are normally asked to be corrected in comments, others more knowledgable correct the question.

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"voting if the person..." as far as I can tell this is dangerously slippery, no matter if you vote up or down. Stack Exchange expects one to vote on post content but never on person –  gnat Jan 23 '13 at 9:18
    
I meant the post. Apologies for the confusion, corrected. –  Simon O'Doherty Jan 23 '13 at 9:24
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Arrrg I could not disagree more! I want EVERY mediocre answer to receive a downvote (with a comment explaining why) first so that there is a "oh, I should fix this" incentive. I want people to feel the standard here is good answers - not mediocre/bad/meh/off topic answers. Not hitting them with a DV initially supports the opposite. –  enderland Jan 23 '13 at 15:08
    
Updated my post above. Do we down vote now when we disagree with someone? Is that how it works here? –  Simon O'Doherty Jan 23 '13 at 15:43
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Yah - meta is a bit different. Up/Downvotes here are more "agree/disagree" –  enderland Jan 23 '13 at 15:46
    
Now a better response, would have just to ask for clarification or "can you clean it up so it matches our rules?" I'm not sure how that is different than my comment here –  enderland Jan 23 '13 at 15:48
    
@enderland. It's different because a comment is flagged to the user and they can act on it. A down vote on the other hand penalises the person who is posting (lowers score, can disable privileges). It isn't a big deal if you have been around a while, but for new users it can illicit a negative response. –  Simon O'Doherty Jan 23 '13 at 15:50
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This is why I said with a comment explaining why - I rarely DV stuff without comments - except in "obvious" cases - and I almost always remove the DV when people address my comments (as in the case of the linked answer you added). –  enderland Jan 23 '13 at 15:53
    
let us continue this discussion in chat –  enderland Jan 23 '13 at 15:55
    
Right. So for a new user it comes across "I am punishing you unless you listen to me". Where as just the comment on it's own would illicit a more positive response. I'd say if you still want to DV, then do the comment first then wait a day before the DV. –  Simon O'Doherty Jan 23 '13 at 15:56
    
In my experience so far nearly 100% of people have modified answers when there is a DV/comment and nearly no one modifies them if it's just a comment (and I've done this a TON :P) –  enderland Jan 23 '13 at 15:58
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Bad questions aren't just closed. SO totally does just close some, and they're often deleted to boot. Things should be improved to be sure, but downvotes indicating "this could be better" are a big part of driving the improvement –  Rarity Jan 23 '13 at 17:30
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The irony of the amount of downvotes on this is bittersweet. Though i agree to some extent that what votes are to be used for isnt really defined anywhere and people go about it each in their own way –  RWY Jan 25 '13 at 16:35
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The FAQ on Meta WPB says that down votes mean you disagee, it isn't used here that it would be on WPB. And while myself and enderland disagree on actions, we agree on the reasons of the intent (to improve discussion). –  Simon O'Doherty Jan 25 '13 at 19:08
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I've been thinking about this some and am unsure if I am quite as opposed, now. There is definitely something about the "new to a SE and then get downvoted" feeling of annoyance. –  enderland Jun 16 '13 at 2:22

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