Social Media Web Culture

How Upvote Systems Have Damaged Online Communities

Joel Lee 02-02-2015

The upvote has taken over the modern web. No matter how it’s implemented — likes, retweets, shares, or reblogs — it’s all based on the same concept: social approval. But as far as online interactions How We Talk Online: A History of Online Forums, From Cavemen Days To The Present Let’s take a step back and think about the wonders of modern technology for one second. The web has made it possible to participate in near-instant communication on a global scale. Join me as I... Read More are concerned, the upvote has been the web’s greatest mistake.


To be clear, fruitful discussions can still sprout in the midst of online reputation systems, but there’s no doubt that these systems have had a real effect on how people view each other and connect with one another The Negative Impact Of Social Networking Sites On Society [Opinion] I have accounts on several social networking sites, and spend far too long on them writing my own updates and reading the updates of others. I enjoy doing so, being able to interact with friends,... Read More .

And in a lot of cases, the results point to the death of authenticity between users.

Self-Worth Isn’t Defined by a Number

Imagine the following scenario: you and your buddy post the same exact status update to Facebook. After 24 hours, you check back to see the like count of both updates. You received three likes (from your mom, your sister, and your wife) while your friend received thirty likes (mostly from friends, some of them mutual).

How many of us can say that we’d walk away without feeling a little hurt?

According to Time, this kind of thing happens all of the time on social networks. It turns out that one-in-three Facebook users leave the site in an unhappier state, especially when they browse their friends’ vacation photos. What kind of unhappy? The kind exhibited by feelings of envy, loneliness, and even anger.



This unhappiness stems from two causes: first, feeling inadequate when compared to social peers; second, feeling undervalued after receiving fewer comments, likes, and general feedback. This reduced sense of social self-worth affects both men and women.

When fewer likes translates into reduced self-worth, the “logical” response is to try to garner as many likes as you can in order to boost your self-worth, right? And that’s why, according to some, social media encourages narcissism. What started as an easy way to keep in touch has become all about me, me, me.



When every bit of content is open to the free judgment of others, it makes sense that we hide our flaws and flaunt our pride. We hold our tongue on unpopular opinions and post anything that might earn us a few more Internet points. In the worst of cases, we construct false personas that have no resemblance to our true selves.

We’ve been trained to define our self-worth by numbers and to see our peers as competition. Would this still occur without online reputation? Sure. Would it be as pronounced? Doubtful.

There’s a great motivational quote 10 Motivational TED Talks To Help You Chip Away At Your Mental Blocks The valuable lesson from the lives of achievers is that they chip away at their mental blocks more consistently than others. Ten TED Talks underscore one simple thing – it’s all in the mind. Read More that deconstructs this phenomenon: “The reason we struggle with insecurity is because we compare our behind-the-scenes with everyone else’s highlight reel.” Like it or not, online reputation systems promote this kind of “highlight reel” behavior. The only way to win is to stop playing altogether.

How Social Karma Destroys Critical Thinking

When the “highlight reel” phenomenon bleeds through an online community, we get a similar outcome but on a larger scale: the “bandwagon effect.” While bandwagoning existed prior to the web, it has never been as easy as it is today with how globalized we are.


There’s no greater example of this than Reddit, a massive online community of communities where the bandwagon effect has several names: echo chamber, circlejerk, hivemind, and more. It’s also no secret that Reddit’s upvote system not only facilitates but even encourages bandwagon behavior.


Just a few days ago, CEO Carlos Ghosn ran an AMA on Reddit hoping to draw attention to Nissan’s development plan for autonomous cars by 2020. One user, who thought he noticed suspicious activity, accused the CEO of seeding accounts and planting questions as a PR stunt. Within 24 hours, he’d amassed over 2,000 upvotes.

Of course, that user didn’t have any real evidence other than a few cherry-picked examples, but that was enough for the Reddit AMA community The Best Reddit AMAs Of All Time [Weird & Wonderful Web] Under the IAmA subreddit, you'll find informal interviews with all sorts of interesting people. These are some of the best AMAs online. Read More . It didn’t take long for hundreds of users to lambast Nissan for their “PR trickery”, even though it turned out that the AMA wasn’t staged at all.


This is compelling evidence that shows how individual judgments are heavily swayed by social influence. The thinking goes like this: “There must be a reason why this post has 2,000 upvotes. I can’t find anything wrong with it, so it’s probably right.” Thus, we end up with these pitchfork mobs and downvote brigades so common on Reddit.


Not convinced yet? In a recent study, a social news site experimented by randomly assigning new user comments with an upvote, a downvote, or nothing. After 100,000+ comments were analyzed, the researchers concluded that comments that started with an upvote were 32 percent more likely to be further upvoted and had a 25 percent higher rating than the control group.

Would people be so quick to pull out their pitchforks if an accusatory comment didn’t have the support of 2,000 upvotes? Probably not. That number infuses content with authority. That isn’t what voting is meant to do, but it happens nonetheless. It’s a shortcut that circumvents critical thinking and enables people to jump to conclusions right away.

The Fatal Flaw of Reputation Systems

Online reputation systems would be great if they actually worked as intended, weeding out poor content in favor of quality content and encouraging members to contribute in meaningful ways. However, it rarely plays out that way.

The main issue is that a single upvote can mean a multitude of things. It’s an ambiguous measurement that’s meant to highlight quality, but quality means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. In other words, it’s impossible to enforce the meaning of an upvote or a retweet or a like, so it ends up being arbitrary.


If self-worth is derived from Internet points, then the fastest path to self-affirmation is whatever brings in the most upvotes. What brings in the most upvotes? Anything that can exploit the bandwagon effect. If you know what the audience likes, all you have to do is pander to them and you’ll soon be swimming in the approval that floods your way.

At this point, authenticity is out the window. Nobody likes posting a comment and coming back to negative upvotes (in the case of Reddit) or zero likes (in the case of Facebook), so people tend not to voice their true opinions. Humor, wit, and memes become the shortcuts to self-worth.


Furthermore, these kinds of systems add an extra layer of abstraction between users. If a person’s value can be boiled down to how many upvotes they have, it becomes much easier to support or dismiss their contributions without even listening to what they meant to say.

Combined with the anonymity of the Internet, never has it been so easy to forget that people on the Internet are still people. Online reputation systems make it easier to suppress empathetic social behavior 4 TED Talks To Revolutionize Your Social Relationships The best TED Talks are the ones that plant seeds in your heart, which later grow into life-altering changes. These videos provide insights into social psychology and give you some food for thought. Read More , which is not something we want if the end goal is authentic socialization.

Final Thoughts

Obviously these are all trends that are still being studied, and most of the conclusions only apply in the general sense. Not every Facebook user is a narcissist. The point is, however, that the upvote does have a damaging effect on online community interactions 5 Ways Social Media Is Ruining Romance Social media has changed relationships as we know it. If you're dating someone, it's public, and unfortunately, some portions of your relationship are, too. Read More . Is the tradeoff worth it? Maybe, maybe not.

That being said, reputation systems are fantastic when pandering is a wanted behavior. For example, online auction sites like eBay First-Time Shopper On Ebay? 5 Important Things You Need To Know Welcome to Ebay Shopping 101. You are the select few, chosen to be trained as sharp-shooting Ebay bidders, capable of finding the best deals and winning every auction. Read More would fall apart without a rating system for users. We want sellers to treat their buyers well, so it actually works in this kind of context.

But if you want genuine conversation, shun the upvote. It does more harm than good.

Image Credits: Facebook Notifications Via Shutterstock, Like Like Like Via Shutterstock, Bandwagon Effect Via Shutterstock, Like Varieties Via Shutterstock

Related topics: Facebook, Online Community, Reddit, Twitter.

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  1. Benjamin E.
    October 21, 2016 at 7:24 pm

    "If self-worth is derived from Internet points, then the fastest path to self-affirmation is whatever brings in the most upvotes. What brings in the most upvotes? Anything that can exploit the bandwagon effect. If you know what the audience likes, all you have to do is pander to them and you’ll soon be swimming in the approval that floods your way."
    This is exactly what I've thought all along.
    I've noticed it too on Youtube - often, downright racist and/or sexist comments will accumulate many upvotes! :(

    This flawed system suppresses critical thinking and tolerance too.

    It was great to find this article, as it seems everyone has been switching to this somewhat flawed voting system without even questioning it.

    If they really wanted to have a system that would be useful without hurting someone's feeeeeelings so much, then they could have the downvote button remove likes from the comment/post (it would only do so when there are one or more upvotes), but not go below zero. That way, junky, "attention-hungry" comments and posts won't show up as popular as they normally would, because there is a degree of suppression allowed.

    It's a real shame, but a lot of stuff these days has gone towards being entirely positive - so much so, that the overall outcome is in fact negative (and very much so). Both good and bad are a part of this world, and the world can't function as well if there is too much good or bad!

  2. Klaas Vaak
    October 5, 2016 at 12:55 pm

    I accumulate negative karma on Reddit because of my contentious comments (not bigoted) that a certain section of the community does not like. But, you know what, maybe I am masochistic but I "take pride" in that negative karma because it shows me that, even if people would like to physically destroy me, my comments move something in people. That's worth more than no reaction. Sure, upvotes are good to get, but at the end of the day I really don't care whether I only get downvotes because I have more satisfying activities than commenting on Reddit.

  3. thatlarkin
    April 26, 2015 at 6:22 pm

    Brilliant article. I really want to hit the "like" button at the bottom of it, but I am, of course, conflicted.

  4. DalSan M
    February 5, 2015 at 5:28 am

    Something that I was surprised wasn't mentioned was the fact that many people click "Like" on posts that shouldn't be liked, such as "My cat just died." or other terrible situations. To me, it makes it seem as though people actually like the fact that the terrible situation occurred instead of the actual meaning of acknowledgement and sorrow that it happened.

    Much of what you stated in this article as reasons the up-voting systems do not work as intended and does more harm than good was the very reasons I mentioned and requested on several occasions for MUO to get rid of the thumbs-up system. These types of systems only play on the egos of people, and as such, rarely works as intended. Other times, it is used merely out of laziness instead of leaving a meaningful comment, especially on comments that shouldn't simply be liked or disliked.

    • Joel
      February 6, 2015 at 7:47 pm

      Great point! In social media, I've also noticed that upvotes are more often used to "acknowledge" a post rather than actually "liking" it. Just another piece of evidence that shows how narrow these upvote systems really are. Thanks!

  5. roggins
    February 3, 2015 at 12:47 pm

    Makes me think of the New England Patriots. Publicly convicted of deflating footballs without any hard evidence released.

    • Guy
      February 7, 2015 at 2:03 am

      If the balls were soft, how could there be hard evidence. Bwahahaha!

      Ok, that WAS a dumb pun.

  6. Zhong
    February 3, 2015 at 3:59 am

    There can be many meanings when you vote for a answer or topic. That's why instead of upvoting it, there should be a system where they need to clarify why they vote on it. I saw some forums implement several criteria - such as helpful, funny, not helpful, irrelevant that replaces the upvote number system.

    • Joel
      February 4, 2015 at 9:09 pm

      Those systems with multiple options are definitely a step in the right direction. I wonder what kind of additional changes we could make to simplify it without losing the multi-meaning essence.

  7. Jessica C
    February 3, 2015 at 1:27 am

    I think it would be interesting if upvote systems only showed the original author the total, but not the readers. Have the comments displayed by date.

    I'm sure that would disappoint people though.

    • Joel
      February 4, 2015 at 9:08 pm

      That does sound interesting but I wonder if it would actually change anything? AFAIK upvote systems were never really meant to be popularity contests; they were meant to crowdsource the separation of wheat from chaff. The problem is that people will always misuse the upvote/downvote mechanic to mean whatever they want it to mean, and it's that misuse that really breaks the system. :(

  8. Doc
    February 2, 2015 at 8:32 pm

    "You received three likes (from your mom, your sister, and your wife) while your friend received thirty likes (mostly from friends, some of them mutual). How many of us can say that we’d walk away without feeling a little hurt?"

    Simple. I don't base my self-worth on my online interactions. I base it on my own sense of self, and (partly) from my interactions In Real Life.

    • Joel
      February 4, 2015 at 9:04 pm

      Awesome. That's the kind of thinking I hoped to encourage with this article! Were you always immune to online social pressure or is it something you developed over time?

    • Doc
      February 5, 2015 at 12:50 am

      I was always picked on in school as a kid. Over time, I developed a "thick skin" and decided I'd decide my own self-worth, rather than letting others do it for me.

    • Joel
      February 6, 2015 at 7:39 pm

      Sorry to hear that. At least something "good" came out of that experience!

  9. tatlist
    February 2, 2015 at 5:53 pm

    Yeah i have noticed myself doing this on forums a lot, i mainly browse through and only read the comments because it is usually, usually, means that that particular post was substantial or had something to contribute. I don't think that's a bad assumption to make, but oh how wrong I've been.

    • Joel
      February 4, 2015 at 9:03 pm

      It really is amazing how important the upvote effect is. Any time I see a post with negative votes, I just skip over it. Was it actually a stupid post or just a controversial opinion? I'll never know. It's so hard to NOT behave that way, though. We only have so many hours in a day, after all...