Upvotes and Downvotes don't work in big internet discussions

1st Jan 2015

A few years back when I first discovered Reddit, I found it to be a place full of insight and interesting content.

As someone that was used to traditional bulletin boards, the idea that most valuable content appeared at the top of a comment thread actually blew my mind.

Rather than the comments all being treated as equal, and just being displayed in chronological order, they were instead shown in the order that the community decided.

I loved the fact that someone might create a thread that linked to some content, and then the top voted comment was usually someone who was an expert in that field and could shed more light on the content. Users could then collaborate with them and garner more information.

The community decides a comment's value through a system of upvoting and downvoting.

Here's the problem - what one user thinks is upvote worthy, another user may not think is upvote worthy. Now this isn't a big problem for smaller communities - e.g. a subreddit with a few hundred subscribers about something specific, like a particular model of a car. This is because it's users all have a shared interest and will generally agree on what should be upvoted and what shouldn't

When a community has a broader appeal (e.g. news, or funny images), this model is flipped on it's head. There is no longer a united community present. The community has fewer common interests. So what content will appeal to most users? Something simple usually. Something that is quick to read and easy to understand. This usually is an attempt at being funny or witty, and might make you chuckle for a moment, but will not add any more insight into the subject at question. These will get the highest number of upvotes, leaving anything of genuine insight or value to sink to the bottom and drown in a sea of pointless remarks.

This can be illustrated very easily. Any thread on a popular subreddit will generally take the following format:

1. Thread posted linking to an image or article

2. Top voted comment is a statement of under 20 words attempting to be funny.

3. A deep thread of unfunny attempts at being witty are anchored to the top voted comment, as other redditors eagerly jump in an attempt at getting a few upvotes.

This breaks the upvote and downvote model. The top voted comment no longer adds any real value to the discussion, but instead distracts you. Comment voting systems are now bringing the noise back, and in a much worse way than chronological comments ever did. In wide appealing communities, they are a race to the bottom. The user that can write the most unintelligent, slapstick comment in the least amount of words wins the fake internet points.

You now need to scroll down through the comments and hunt for the points of genuine insight that actually add value to the discussion.

As the community collectively gets more and more unintelligent, this problem gets worse. Users will even downvote comments or linked articles that are factually accurate simply because they dislike it. This community is now a horrible place to be.

It isn't just a Reddit problem. Upvoting systems have been bolted onto many discussion mediums as the internet woke up to their auto noise filtering benefits.

Have a look at this comment thread on a Guardian article about the ongoing shitstorm at Tesco PLC. The TL;DR is that Tesco have managed to overstate their profits by£250 Million, causing £2 Billion to be wiped off the company's value, and resulting in many senior managers getting suspended.

The comment thread is a festival of eye rolling idiocy, as the idiots take over and have an idiotic circlejerk free-for-all of bullshit, probably whilst on their lunch breaks at work. We can easily put the comments into 4 categories:

1. Slapstick attempts at being funny in as few words as possible

Screen Shot 2015-01-01 at 15.45.24

Thanks - your comment is funny but adds no value. 40 Upvotes at the time of writing.

2. Idiotically wild conspiracies that miss the point by a few hundred planets

Screen Shot 2015-01-01 at 15.48.25

This comment very misinformed, claiming that the whole episode is an attempt by Tesco to get their corporation tax bill down. Let's just go over that for a minute - Tesco's deliberately wiped off £6 Billion from their share price and suspended lots of senior managers, so that they could avoid tax? Oh and by the way, if you make more profit you pay more corporation tax.

101 upvotes at the time of writing. So thats at least 101 people that have read the comment and had some sort of belief in it. The upvote count is telling you that this comment has some sort of value. It doesn't. It's worthless.

3. Comments that have nothing to do with the current discussion

Screen Shot 2015-01-01 at 15.54.37

76 upvotes for the person telling us about their food shopping bill. Thanks. This comment reminds me of the "I brought my own mic!" line from a classic Simpsons episode.I brought my own mic

Sitting there, smugly telling us irrelevant information that we don't need to know. It's almost spam.

4. Comments that actually contribute to the current discussion

Screen Shot 2015-01-01 at 16.03.10And there we have it - this comment spurred a valuable discussion thread related to the content of the topic. 18 measly upvotes.

How do we fix this?

1 - Turn off comments

One of the fixes is to remove comments. On a news article that states factual information about something that has happened, how much value can the community really add? Well, I think the community can always add value and insight, especially for those that will want to dig deeper into a particular subject or story, so I wouldn't like to see this happen.

2 - Filter the noise in a better way

I've got a few ideas how you could filter the noise out of discussion threads.

Rather than simply upvoting or downvoting, why don't we apply a tag instead? Upvoting just feels too broad - if you upvote something it may be because you find it funny, because you agree with it, or because you found it insightful. So what if you could drag an icon onto a comment that represented how you felt about it instead?

So looking at our first comment from above:

Screen Shot 2015-01-01 at 15.45.24

This would have 40 "funny" tags instead of 40 upvotes.

And our final comment:

Screen Shot 2015-01-01 at 16.03.10

Would have 18 "insightful" tags.

You could then even put comment threads into "funny" mode, where the comments are sorted by the highest number of "funny" tags. Likewise with "insight" mode, where the comments would be sorted by the highest number of "insight" tags. This is similar to how canvas used to work, before Christopher Poole pulled it.

I think this could work, so I'm going to see if I can create something that will use this commenting system. Watch this space.