[Meta] Hiding negative karma notifications by default

by habryka1 min read4th May 20199 comments


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A few weeks ago we launched karma notifications, and I've been overall pretty happy with the feature. However, we and many other users noticed that while the current system treats upvotes and downvotes as symmetric, humans tend to definitely not perceive those two as symmetric and so the lived experience of having a single day with a slightly negative karma total tends to outweigh many days of strongly positive karma scores.

I also noticed that this experience has backpropagated into me being much more hesitant to downvote users or even to remove my upvotes since I know they will perceive this as a downvote and if they are not a frequent user might feel quite punished as a response.

As a consequence, we decided to hide negative karma notifications for users by default, though you can change that in your settings. My current model of users suggests it is very unlikely for users to not notice if they are getting significantly downvoted, so I am not very worried about that information getting lost, and I expect it will overall make people's site-experience better (and their beliefs about the value and reception of their content more, not less, accurate)

For some more context, see this discussion on my short-form feed.

9 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 2:18 AM
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I'm really not sure about this. The first time I saw negative karma notifications my response was just... I was impressed by the honesty and integrity of it. Any other site would hide negative info like that because they know the main purpose of a notification feed is to condition the user to keep coming back, and LW's wasn't about that, and that set it apart. And now it basically is about that. That wasn't your intention, but you've ended up making a reward machine for the behaviour of checking lesswrong regularly.

I don't think you can justify this. I don't think you can ever justify having something that filters out a certain kind of information because you don't respect your users enough to trust them to emotionally process it in a balanced way. That is one of the most basic components of rationality, to know that the downvotes are probably there, that they're happening, and to feel worse about not seeing them than seeing them. You're assuming that this earnest curiousity, this resilience, has not developed in a lot of LW's members, maybe it hasn't, but it's a real ugly shame to make one of the site's most prominent features a monument to that.

(I dunno. I understand that karma notifications don't really matter and they're mostly there to mitigate a deeper pathos, and that there's something to be said for the virtue of instrumental evils..)

Possible compromise idea: send everyone their karma upvotes along with downvotes regularly, but send the upvotes in daily batches and the downvotes in monthly batches. Having your downvotes sent to you at known, predictable times rather than in random bursts, and having the updates occur less often, might let users take in the relevant information without having it totally dominate their day-to-day experience of visiting the site. This also makes it easier to spot patterns and to properly discount very small aversive changes in vote totals.

On the whole, I'm not sure how useful this would be as a sitewide default. Some concerns:

  • It's not clear to me that karma on its own is all that useful or contentful. Ray recently noted that a comment of his had gotten downvoted somewhat, and that this had been super salient and pointed feedback for him. But I'm pretty sure that the 'downvote' Ray was talking about was actually just me turning a strong upvote into a normal upvote for minor / not-worth-independently-tracking reasons. Plenty of people vote for obscure or complicated or just-wrong reasons.
  • The people who get downvoted the most are likely to have less familiarity with LW norms and context, so they'll be especially ill-equipped to extract actionable information from downvotes. If all people are learning is '<confusing noisy social disapproval>', I'm not sure that's going to help them very much in their journey as a rationalist.

Upvotes tend to be a clearer signal in my experience, while needing to meet a lower bar. (Cf.: we have a higher epistemic bar for establishing a norm 'let's start insulting/criticizing/calling out our colleagues whenever they make a mistake' than for establishing a norm 'let's start complimenting/praising/thanking our colleagues whenever they do something cool', and it would be odd to say that the latter is categorically bad in any environment where we don't also establish the former norm.)

I'm not confident of what the right answer is; this is just me laying out some counter-considerations. I like Mako's comment because it's advocating for an important value, and expressing a not-obviously-wrong concern about that value getting compromised. I lean toward 'don't make down-votes this salient' right now. I'd like more clarity inside my head about how much the downvote-hiding worry is shaped like 'we need to make downvotes more salient so we can actually get the important intellectual work done' vs. 'we need to make downvotes more salient so we can better symbolize/resemble Rationality'.

In theory I agree with this, and it was my position several years ago. My own reaction is balanced in this sense, I perceive downvotes as interesting observations, not punishment. But several people I respect described their experience as remaining negative after all this time, so I suspect they can't easily change that response. You wouldn't occasionaly throw spiders at someone with arachnophobia. Maybe you should shower them in spiders though, I heard that helps with desensitisation.

Maybe you should shower them in spiders

I'd propose a "free downvotes" thread (we could even make a game of it by inviting people to earn their downvotes by writing humorously bad comments) but presumably that would screw up the eigenkarma graph.

I’m not sure I get the model of the value of allowing downvotes but hiding them from view. The only reason for karma (afaik) is feedback on whether a small self-selected portion of readers wants more or less of that kind of post/comment. Downplaying the "less, please" part of the signal seems to break a useful quality feedback mechanism.

Also, what numbers now don't add up? Is the daily sum no longer my change in karma, or do the post changes not add up to the sum? Do you show the correct net (for post or total) if it's positive, or show only upvoted on the whole feature?

Ah, sorry for being unclear. We show the correct net change for each comment/post, until that net-change becomes zero or negative at which point we don't show it. The total net sum above your karma notifications is the total sum of changes to each individual comment/post that are net-positive.

I’m not sure I get the model of the value of allowing downvotes but hiding them from view. The only reason for karma (afaik) is feedback on whether a small self-selected portion of readers wants more or less of that kind of post/comment. Downplaying the "less, please" part of the signal seems to break a useful quality feedback mechanism.

Basically, based on my and others experience, most people have a bias to weigh negative social feedback much more strongly than positive social feedback. This means in order to get a symmetric response of updating equally much on an upvote as you would on a downvote (such that an upvote plus a downvote on two consecutive days leaves your behavior roughly the same) we have to reduce the salience of negative feedback quite a bit. Different platforms handle this differently. HN for example doesn't allow the vast majority of users to downvote at all. StackOverflow requires a much higher karma total to downvote than it does to upvote.

My model is that people will notice quite reliably if their stuff gets downvoted, since people check the score of their old content quite frequently. As such, I think in terms of salience we get closer to the right balance if we use karma notifications to highlight positive changes and leave the discovery of negative changes as it was.

since people check the score of their old content quite frequently

I've stopped doing this since karma notifications came online.

Elizabeth's point seems important. What if there was a weekly notification for "here's the downvotes you received in the past week"?

Ok, so the mismatch will be that my daily total may be higher than the change to my karma total. No worries. In fact, points don't matter regardless, so please don't take my comments as particularly strong recommendations.

I am curious about the tweaks to make the downvotes less visible rather than more fundamental recognition of the assymetry - by making downvotes smaller than the upvotes throughout the system.