The Value Of The No-Vote
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This essay is a direct response to Abolish The No Vote, Downvote Your Friends, and Other Musings by RogetRoget and is made after consultation with that author. This is neither an attack on that author nor an attempt to violate site rules through manipulation of others' votes.

I have experience and knowledge regarding this subject, but if you'd like to skip what could be considered as egotistical self-headpats, I've collapsed it:

Roget's essay asks several different questions in several different ways. Let's answer each one in turn.

What exactly is a no-vote?

First and foremost, I'd like to define what exactly we mean by a no-vote. In the essay, Roget defines a few different scenarios that are somewhat unrelated. These situations effectively fall into a couple scenarios after a user reads an article:

  1. Invisible No-vote: chooses to not vote or comment. No one knows the user has made this decision.
  2. Visible No-Vote: chooses to provide vague feedback and/or publicly declare their response to be a no-vote without specific feedback. An example might be a simple "No-vote for now."
  3. Reasoned No-Vote: chooses to provide targeted, reasoned feedback on the reasons for not-voting.

The following are not relevant to this essay.

  • Not reading an article and therefore not voting
  • Not voting as a matter of conflict of interest
  • Not reading enough of an article to be able to provide an informed vote
  • Voting arbitrarily, due to personal grudge, or any other reason which violates site rules
  • Voting due to technical failure or error on the part of the user

no-votes in real-life deliberation

In any system (at least, to my knowledge) which allows a body or population to vote on an outcome in the affirmative or the negative, the choice to not vote is built into the system. These typically come in several categories:

Abstention

Abstention is the simplest form of no-voting. This takes two main forms:

  • A recorded abstention is where a person declares they are choosing neither option and are putting their abstention on the record. This is sometimes called "Present", "NV", "Not Voting", "Recorded", or "Responded".
  • An unrecorded abstention is where a person does not cast a vote, and their lack-of-vote is not put on record. Some systems, such as the UK House of Lords, only have the ability to abstain in this manner.

Scratch Vote

A blank vote is casting a vote which makes use of fringe option, "none-of-the-above", or "decline-to-vote" options but which are counted in the voting tally. This can sometimes be in the form of a protest vote, voting for a valid but impossible-to-win candidate. In first-past-the-posts systems this is often seen as "NOTA", an option to vote for none-of-the-above. In the US, this is commonly seen as "write-in". If a cast blank vote is not valid, it is a spoilt vote, below.

Spoilt Vote

Which casts a vote which is not valid and cannot therefore be counted.

What do we use?

Our system doesn't have a substantive third-option, and it is only possible to spoil the vote by casting it for reasons or in a manner which breaks site rules. For this reason, the only types of abstentions applicable to us are the recorded and unrecorded abstentions.

What is a no-vote worth?

The invisible no-vote, leaving no vote and no comment on an article you've read, doesn't help anybody or make the site better…When you no-vote, nobody knows or cares about your opinion.

In some systems, casting a no-vote has the effect of one way or another. Usually this is when you are determining things by qualified majority (a majority of the whole body must agree), where an abstention is counted as a no, or a vote by unanimity (The whole body votes as one and a single objection defeats the vote), where an abstention counts as a yes. These are very specific circumstances which require either exact numbers to be enacted or which administratively require consent.

Our system does not have that. A vote not cast does not influence the value, nor is it counted a certain way by default. On Reddit, for example, a post you make is automatically-up-voted by you upon posting. The "default" is a positive. But any person who reads that post and takes no action does not up-vote it by default, either; its value has not changed. Every vote has the same absolute value. What's different is the change value.

If you've ever rated a product, service, or restaurant, you understand the difference between an "absolute value" and a "change value", though you might not realize it. If you go to a restaurant that has 2 out of 5 stars, and you have a great time, you might give it 4/5: that's above average! That would give their rating a bit of a boost, wouldn't it? However, let's say that same restaurant initially had a rating of 5 out of 5 stars, your "above average" rating will bring their rating down. The "absolute value" of your vote is the same, but the "change value" is different. In the latter situation, no-voting is more valuable than voting.

What does a no-vote mean?

Unless you leave a vote, preferably putting a bit of thought into a comment to go along with it, you're effectively disenfranchising yourself from the Wiki's quality control process.

This statement seems to imply that "not voting" has a real, tangible impact on the resulting article score, or is effectively a vote in one direction.1 Usually you'll see this online during political arguments: "A vote for not-X is a vote for Y". This is fallacious on its face: Active lack of action is not equivalent to action. Not voting does not equal voting on the SCP Wiki.

But let's not be pedantic. I assume Roget is saying that if you do not vote and do not leave a reason, then you are not contributing to the betterment of the site. However, this assertion ignores the fact that a down-vote without reasoning has the exact same effect, since an author who receives a down-vote without reasoning does not inherently understand what caused it. The same can also be said for up-votes: a positive up-vote does nothing to provide the author with feedback about what worked. In his quote, Woedenaz says:

But I do not think it is unfair to say that those that do downvote and explain why are actively contributing in the improvement of the wiki in a more productive way.

And that really hits the nail on the head. The Great Hippo's excerpt at the end of the article is fully about the importance of good criticism, because when it comes to making an impact on authors and the wiki, it's not the vote that matters, it's the reasoning that will lead to change in the future.

Do I need to give a reason?

So let's talk about reasoning. Roget's argument fails to take into account those who no-vote and *leave a reason why*. Often, these kinds of posts include specific things that did not work for the reader. For me, this has been incredibly valuable feedback for identifying individual pain points that keep a work from reaching its fullest potential.

The Criticism Policy is clear: "You aren't required to comment at all. You also don't have to explain your vote on an article." That should very well be the end of the story.

In most online communities, the requirement to explain your vote is not required, but it is sometimes encouraged. Wikipedia abides by several guidelines for voting including the often-cited Polling is Not a Substitute for Discussion encouraging users and administrators who close discussions to determine the outcome based on the reasoning, and not the landslide of votes made for flimsy reasons.

When we take all this into account, it adds up to one important distinction between the vote and the reasoning. A vote without reasoning is simply and expression of like or dislike. It doesn't exist to develop the author; it serves to perform the administrative function of showing whether an article was liked or not liked. It is a single, defined data point: An up-vote or a down-vote. And in the middle—the no-vote. Three different expressions with three different absolute values: +1, 0, or -1.

The subjective data is in the form of the actual reasoning. This is where the development of the writer comes into play, from the feedback that may or may not be helpful. I say "may or may not" because not all criticism is helpful. Learning when to ignore and when to listen to it is a skill that takes time. The people who choose to give feedback are awesome, and I definitely encourage it, regardless of if it is accompanied by an up-vote, down-vote, or neither.

If Roget's essay boils down to "If you don't leave feedback, you're not helping to develop writers", then there's the potential for merit on that argument. But that doesn't have anything to do with voting, or the lack thereof. And while we're on the subject…

Am I responsible for my fellow writer's development?

A question we hate to dance around, because it's hard to answer it. I've asked a couple people, and none of them had a straight yes or no. We are a collaborative community, and we write together and I think that, in general, we don't want to see anyone fail. However, I cannot see where any individual is entitled to receive feedback which is beneficial to them. It's one of those things that no one wants to say out loud, but it pretty generally understood. We're not a workshop, we're certainly not paid tutors, and any person who felt entitled to feedback from me for a vote I made might raise my hackles a bit. Is it cool to ask for someone's reasoning if they didn't drop any? Maybe. I think it depends on the person in question. Some might be okay with it. Others might feel attacked and become defensive.

What is easily forgotten, however, is that the people who contribute to SCP are a limited resource, and their criticism and feedback is similarly limited. Sometimes there's no time, energy, or even desire to explain why an article didn't work for you. Critique, and even the reasoning for a vote, is itself a limited resource. It is also a valuable one.

Conclusion

When it comes down to it, there are two points being made about two different things in Roget's essay. The attempt to both tie the value of a vote to its reasoning while also espousing the value of the down-vote compared to the no-vote makes no statistical or cultural sense. And more importantly, to insist that down-votes somehow provide better impact on a community that any kind of vote + feedback is an incredibly shortsighted view.

I want to revisit the assertion that "When you no-vote, nobody knows or cares about your opinion." It is immediately followed by:

If you down-vote, you matter immensely and people would probably kill to hear your opinion. Isn’t it nice to be wanted?

If a person down-votes because they want their opinion to matter, or they want to feel powerful, or they want to have someone come ask them why they downvoted, then that really says something about the voter, not the writer. An opinion is not worth more just because someone click the minus button.

What makes your vote worth more is to accompany it with feedback. The value of that no-vote, or any vote for that matter, comes from the power of critique. Down-vote, up-votes, and YES, no-votes. The no-vote provides a vehicle by which people can give feedback without impacting an article's score. It provides the middle ground between support and rejection.

If you are so inclined to lend your hot take to a writer in the hopes of pushing them in what you believe is a better direction, then I can only encourage you to do so. But at the same time, each contributor has both the ability and the choice to abstain, and the ability to vote silently. To presume or even demand otherwise is nothing short of an unhealthy expectation for a community of people already putting in their time, energy, and hours to help make the wiki the best it can possibly be.

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