Down with Downvotes: Why Do Subreddits Disable Downvotes?

This year, I took part in the comments workshop at CSCW 2017 (also known as the CCCCCCCR Workshop). The workshop applied a model I appreciate — we actually attempted to get some real work done during our time. As part of a great work group with Stuart Geiger and Tom Wilson, we dove into understanding how subreddit members reason about the decision to disable the downvoting feature.

First, a little background. By default, Reddit provides the readers with the option to give both positive (upvote) and negative (downvote) feedback on any post. However, the moderators of a particular subreddit may choose to disable this option through a simple hack of the interface (technically the option is still there, but it is invisible in the standard interface). Below is an screencap of two example subreddits, demonstrating the difference:

Two subreddits. On the left, the r/YAwriters does not make the downvoting option available. On the right, r/dailyprogrammer does.

Two subreddits. On the left, the r/YAwriters does not make the downvoting option available. On the right, r/dailyprogrammer does.

Subreddits that decide to disable or enable the downvoting feature generally post about this decision, allowing members of the community to weigh in. In this post, I’ll focus on our qualitative analysis of these of these discussions. To broadly sketch out our method:

  1. We began with a master Reddit dataset (helpfully provided for the workshop by Alex Leavitt and available publicly on Google BigQuery) and searched for four variations of the phrase “disabled downvoting.” Through this process, we identified 13 potential subreddits that have posted on this topic.
  2. From this set, we excluded subreddits where the option was mentioned but not discussed or enacted, ending up with 4 subreddits that made the decision to disable downvotes and were still disabled on the day of the workshop (Feb 2017) and 4 subreddits that made the decision to disable downvotes but reversed this decision sometime before the workshop.
  3. We open-coded all discussion in the post threads corresponding with the decision to disable and/or re-enable downvoting (generating over 150 open codes).
  4. We clustered these open-codes based on thematic affinity to identify major themes in response to the three guiding questions below.

Q1: Why do communities consider disabling the downvote? In our data, we observed four major reasons for this decision. First, if the community was small, they cited the ability and desire to self-moderate without the downvote. Second, subreddit members worried that downvotes introduced negativity, which was seen as particularly problematic in communities that encouraged creative contribution and growth (e.g., see r/YAwriters above). Third, communities may have perceived downvotes to be misused to mark differences of opinion (e.g., disliking a particular music genre) or personal disagreements rather than to signify irrelevant content. Finally, some cited that in very active communities certain reader “blanket downvote,” leading to new posts disappearing from the front page without ever being seen.

Q2: What are some objections to disabling the downvote? Despite the reasons given above to consider disabling downvoting, the decision was met with disapproving voices in some communities. The dissenters cited one or more of three main reasons. First, downvotes were seen as an important part of how a subreddit shapes itself and removing this option was seen as “not in the spirit of reddit.” Second, in certain communities, the move to disable downvotes was denounced as problematic pandering to the need for “safe spaces.” Finally, members worried that disabling downvoting removed a useful mechanism for the community to mark spam, irrelevant, and false posts.

Q3: Why did some communities choose to reverse their decision to disable downvotes? Four of the subreddits we examined chose to re-enable downvotes (one of these just 10 hours after the initial decision). We examined the three major reasons cited in those discussions. The first reason cited was that disabling was meant as a temporary change (e.g., after an influx of new members) or as a tentative experiment. Thus, the return to enabling downvotes was expected and unsurprising. The second reason cited was that the interface hack for disabling the downvote was insufficient. Since there were still ways to trigger a downvote without the graphical down arrows (e.g., keyboard shortcuts, mobile interface), the intervention may have disproportionately affected different groups of readers. The third reason cited was that a different solution to the consideration highlighted in Q1 was necessary due to the objections highlighted in Q2. One such solution was to set and make visually salient a set of rules for how a downvote is meant to be applied in that particular community (e.g., to mark irrelevant content but not to signify personal opinion).

There were also a few interesting implications for future research and design that emerged from this qualitative analysis. First, we found that users suggested a number of desired features and alternatives to downvoting that were simply not possible within the constraints of the current Reddit system. At the core of most of these suggestions, members of these communities desired a way to share their values with readers and encourage readers to apply the downvote or upvote with those values in mind. Second, we found that users had diverse hypotheses about predicted future effects of disabling downvoting with opposing theories regarding possible effects on increasing/decreasing the amount of discussion, increasing/decreasing posted content quality, and increasing/decreasing other participation (e.g., upvotes). Given the diversity of these folk theories, it seems that these questions are ripe for empirical investigation.

Technology in Recovery: Online Videochat Meetings

My blog post this month is co-authored with my student Sabirat Rubya and hosted on the ATTC (Addiction Technology Transfer Center) Messenger — an online publication aimed at service providers and clinicians who are focused on supporting recovery from substance use disorders. Check it out in the April 2017 ATTC Messenger issue!

Children as Inventors of Happiness Technologies

Click to expand the infographic!

Happiness is a practice. People can achieve happiness by applying specific skills to their interaction with the world. These skills include gratitude (reflecting on and expressing thankfulness for positive aspects of one’s life), mindfulness (practicing awareness and acceptance of the present moment), and problem solving (reflecting on thoughts and feelings to find alternative interpretations and solutions). About 44% of school in the U.S. include programs that teach such social and emotional skills to children (e.g., Penn Resiliency Program), and a number of investigations have demonstrated the effectiveness of these approaches. However, one of the challenges faced by school-based programs is that they provide few (if any) opportunities for children to extend the practice of these skills to their lives outside of the classroom. Technology may help address this gap by providing engaging opportunities to revisit happiness practices outside of the classroom and integrate them into the everyday lives of children.

Prof. Stephen Schueller (Clinical Psychologist, Northwestern University) and I partnered to consider and design new technologies to support children in practicing gratitude, mindfulness, and problem solving skills. While Stephen has a great deal of expertise in positive psychology and I know a fair bit about designing technology for children, we also wanted to make sure that our approach represented children’s voices, priorities, and values. We collaborated with the Y.O.U. (Youth & Opportunity United) summer program to train twelve children in becoming “Happiness Inventors.” Through fourteen 90-minute sessions, we worked with the children to understand their definitions of happiness, to teach them age-appropriate gratitude, mindfulness, and problem solving exercises, and to provide them with the knowledge and structure to become inventors of new technologies to help kids practice happiness skills. Through these session, children brainstormed over 400 ideas and developed many of these ideas as sketches, prototypes, and videos. The video the children made documenting a few of their outcomes is below.

By conducting a content analysis of the children’s work, we found a number of important implications for future technologies aiming to support the practice of happiness skills. First, we found that children’s interpretations of positive psychology concepts like gratitude, mindfulness, and problem solving may not always match adult interpretations and perspectives of these concepts. For example, many children’s interpretations of happiness across all three concepts revolved around external influences on happiness, such as getting practical help (e.g., with homework) or avoiding unpleasant situations. These may not be typical concepts within positive psychology, but these concepts are worth considering when developing interventions for children. If a child’s mental model of happiness and how it can be achieved does not match the model forwarded by a particular intervention, the intervention’s effect may be limited for that child. Researchers should make the effort to engage with the mental models of the particular child audience and, if necessary, work on changing counterproductive belief structures before deploying positive technology intervention.

Second, the children’s designs pointed to a number of specific features and engagement approaches that may increase the appeal of positive technologies. One noteworthy example is that children often imagined technological solutions that could understand and react to various internal states, such as thoughts and emotions. Indeed, a growing number of efforts are attempting to glean psychological and emotional states from various affective computing technologies as diverse as EEG, galvanic skin response, and automated sentiment analysis on social media. Positive technologies that make use of such features may have particular appeal for children who are still learning to understand and interpret their affective states and the affective states of others. Another noteworthy aspect is in the number and diversity of approaches that the children posited for encouraging sustained engagement with interventions. While gamification and social interaction were two important approaches that have been considered in a number of previous interventions, there were also a few surprising ideas. One of these surprises was sensory engagement. Many of the children’s ideas posited that somebody could be motivated to engage with an intervention simply because it was beautiful and appealing to the senses, whether it be visual, aural, olfactory, or haptic. This is not a well-explored approach in the design of positive technologies and it would be interesting to know the smells associated with happiness (our participants suggested some, which included warm chocolate chip cookies and the smell of one’s own bed).

Finally, another design insight from this investigation emerged from observing the types of technologies that children cited in their inventions. It was clear that children were not drawn to interventions for laptops or desktops. At the very least, the implication of this is that web-based interventions for children should be designed using a mobile-first paradigm. However, we should emphasize that this is just a stop-gap solution, as even mobile-first web-based solutions struggle to achieve sustained engagement. Indeed, there may be an opportunity to increase engagement by thinking outside the box (or the computer, as the case may be here). The children in our study suggested a number of solutions that went beyond apps and websites. These instantiations included wearable accessories and apparel, toys and gadgets that may operate independently or in conjunction with a phone app, smart furniture and home infrastructure, robots and drones, and public kiosks and displays. It may be fruitful for designers to consider their positive technology interventions not as “sites” that children “visit,” but rather as tools that live alongside with them in the real physical world.

There’s a lot more in our Journal of Medical Internet Research paper, so check it out if you’re interested!