So David Lowe over on his bigpinots blog points makes this observation:

So why do the ‘social networks’ not address this issue. Facebook has a ‘like’ option and a subsequent ‘unlike’ button; but the latter just takes the user back to a neutral position. Google’s +1 is pretty much the same: I can give something a +1 rating or make it unrated; I can’t give anything a -1.

If we are unhappy with a company or site, shouldn’t we be looking to ‘dislike’ and ‘-1’ them? This would also help to clearly differentiate unpopular sites from those that just have low usage; for example, currently, it’s impossible to know if a small number of ‘likes’ is due to unpopularity or because it is a new site or has few visitors.

Now in my daily procrastinations on the interwebs, I frequent two link aggregation sites, namely Reddit and Hacker News. Paul Graham is the guy behind Hacker News and makes a connection between down votes and negative behaviour. He cites the broken windows theory as an inspiration for this view. On his site, it’s difficult enough to downvote a comment that you may as well consider it non-existent:

It’s pretty clear now that the broken windows theory applies to community sites as well. The theory is that minor forms of bad behavior encourage worse ones: that a neighborhood with lots of graffiti and broken windows becomes one where robberies occur. I was living in New York when Giuliani introduced the reforms that made the broken windows theory famous, and the transformation was miraculous. And I was a Reddit user when the opposite happened there, and the transformation was equally dramatic.

I’m not criticizing Steve and Alexis. What happened to Reddit didn’t happen out of neglect. From the start they had a policy of censoring nothing except spam. Plus Reddit had different goals from Hacker News. Reddit was a startup, not a side project; its goal was to grow as fast as possible. Combine rapid growth and zero censorship, and the result is a free for all.

On Reddit (and Digg), you can downvote and upvote links and comments and some would argue that this leads to more incendiary discussions on the site. Frequently you will see people complaining about getting downvoted for a comment which you don’t really see on Hacker News.

On yet another site, Stackoverflow, there’s another take on this:

The problem isn’t downvotes, per se, but encouraging responsible downvoting. That’s why on Stack Overflow, we do it this way:

  • Upvotes add 10 reputation to the post author
  • Downvotes remove 2 reputation from the post author, and 1 from your reputation

The trick here is that downvotes are mostly informational. The cost of a downvote to the users’ reputation (or karma in Slashdot/Reddit parlance) is quite low. It would take a whopping 5 downvotes to equal the effect of a single upvote. And, on top of that, downvotes cost you a tiny bit of reputation. The net effect is that you have to feel very strongly about something to downvote it. Downvotes are serious business, and not to be cast lightly. We designed our system around that maxim.

It doesn’t really surprise me that neither Facebook nor Google have dislike buttons, especially in the case of Facebook where they show the number of votes. There’s no way the Facebook ‘like’ button would be anywhere near as popular if they showed the number of dislikes on a users website. Right or wrong, Facebook has optimised for being ubiquitous, not for being a fair assessment of a user’s site. I would guess that Google’s +1 feature is possibly going to go the same way.

You have to be mindful of these ideas when you’re designing an open system and make sure you incentivise the user behaviour that you want. Otherwise, you could end up inadvertently designing for behaviour that you don’t want.