Newcomers don't know all the rules. Even if they have read all the rules and have all good intentions, it is very hard to understand the SE philosophy by the first grasp because of how special this site is, particularly if compared to the typical RPG forums. What is even more important, newcomers don't know the "unwritten rules", which also seem to be abundant here, and they mostly don’t read all the policy agreed on Meta before making their first post.

It is hence a common thing that a newbie comes, posts something that they sincerely find good, but which is not good here on SE, and the newbie gets 9000 downvotes. If their downvoters don't think that the post can be improved in any way, if they simply don't believe that said individual author would cooperate, or if they are just fed up with negative feedback from newcomers who they wanted to help, downvoters don't post anything to tell why are they downvoting. They just press the button.

The reaction of the newcomer is surprise. They have invested effort, it was not appreciated, and the newbie isn't even told why! Voting down needs to be revised! Force comments upon downvoting! Only allow downvotes under specific reasons!..

...And the newbie gets even more unexplained downvotes, now on Meta, likely also unexplained.

At best, our newbie asks very politely why do people downvote. At best, they admit being likely wrong and show that they want constructive feedback to work on.

But people are different. While a polite reaction is natural for some, it is not that natural for everyone. Someone comes from an adult-oriented friendly forum, someone comes from Reddit, or another toxic place. They can even accuse people of trolling, because a huge amount of it in some problem communities makes people's troll detector yield a lot of false positives.

If the newbie was polite and showing readiness to work to improve, even if their content really can't be improved, at least they will learn why. I don't know how many of them do, but I suspect that not many.

Some newbies may just think that this site is aggressive to beginners (as many sites are) and leave. I don't know how many of them do, but I suspect that most of them do. They are lost to us.

Some will leave a toxic comment and leave, perhaps non-voluntarily. I don't know how many of them do, because, thanks to our mods, extra-toxic comments are deleted, but I suspect that even some of those could learn and participate here.

To sum up:

  • Newcomers don't know the rules, including the unwritten ones.
  • Newcomers can get very upset with unexplained downvotes, moreover, they don't learn from them.
  • People are discouraged from leaving feedback comments on posts that cannot be improved by the site policy.
    • They are also discouraged from leaving any kind of comments on newcomers' posts by some toxic newcomers.
  • Hence, some of the newcomers are lost to us, unless they are very eager to participate and improve.

Now — what can we do here on RPG.SE to fix the problems I mentioned? How can we help those who want to learn learn? How can we encourage those who can help the newbies, even if some of the newcomers react very negatively?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Some links, or pointers to the kinds of scenarios you've seen recently, would be helpful here. I may see different issues from you due to where mod-ness has me spend my time on the site, but I don't see much of this issue myself. \$\endgroup\$ Nov 23, 2017 at 9:54
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    \$\begingroup\$ @doppelspooker That's the one recent example that has triggered me to write this: rpg.meta.stackexchange.com/questions/7552/… Many users mention similar suggestions (require comment or specific reason to downvote) to be pretty popular among downvoted newcomers. \$\endgroup\$ Nov 23, 2017 at 10:05
  • \$\begingroup\$ While that's true, we explained why user was receiving downvotes (here, which appeared to have been overlooked so they were still confused about it, but this one I think was seen) and even the downvoted answer on it has an explanation for its downvotes \$\endgroup\$ Nov 23, 2017 at 10:10
  • \$\begingroup\$ @doppelspooker Yes, at some point, if the person comes on Meta and then writes a comment about downvotes, they get an answer. But the first reaction from the community is just a bunch of downvotes, comments explaining them are only delivered if specially ordered. :) \$\endgroup\$ Nov 23, 2017 at 10:14
  • \$\begingroup\$ Ok, so, closing the gap in time between the user getting downvotes, and getting feedback for them, and removing the need to specifically ask? \$\endgroup\$ Nov 23, 2017 at 10:16
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    \$\begingroup\$ @doppelspooker Exactly! \$\endgroup\$ Nov 23, 2017 at 10:17

5 Answers 5


One thing to be aware of is that "newcomers who have a bad first experience" are a tiny minority.

They only seem like a larger percentage because of the usual perceptual warps we humans experience, where events associated with negative or strong emotions are much more prominent in our memories, so we overestimate their number and frequency. We don't notice the overwhelming majority of newcomers who have a fine first experience — because they slip smoothly into a good working relationship with the site.

So that's one point: A huge majority of newcomers are actually fine.

Hence, some of the newcomers are lost to us, unless they are very eager to participate and improve.

Remember that this is by design.

We can't suit everyone, so the site's been designed to suit some people well instead of many people poorly. We want to select for those who are eager to participate and improve. Those are our future answer experts. Someone who isn't excited by this site might still ask the occasional question, but the site isn't really made for them, and doesn't really care whether they stay or go.

Meanwhile, those who for whatever reason actively clash with the site and have no eagerness to resolve the clash, are encouraged by the site, on purpose, to not use it more. The site doesn't suit them and it doesn't want us to spend our time & energy on those clashes.

So that's another point: The site is made to quickly turn away newcomers it isn't able to help.

As a result of those two points, I don't actually think there's a problem. We talk about this a lot and that makes it seem more true that it's a problem than it actually is. I think we should concentrate instead on:

  1. Appreciating the value we deliver to the overwhelming majority of newcomers because of the very same things that don't suit the tiny minority.
  2. Remembering to be friendly when we can. We won't convert the tiny minority — and we don't want to, since they wouldn't work out well here anyway — but we do want to welcome that majority that we keep forgetting about.
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    \$\begingroup\$ Not arguing, just curious - how are you reaching your conclusion that the majority of newcomers are fine? General impression based on mod experience? Or some kind of retention metric? \$\endgroup\$
    – A_S00
    Nov 23, 2017 at 17:46
  • \$\begingroup\$ @A_S00 A combination of hands-on impressions (i.e. “how often do new people hit the site hard and/or bounce off it?”) from actively handling such events, combined with the site analytics that show a slow but steady year-over-year growth in the “active user” base. \$\endgroup\$ Nov 23, 2017 at 18:29
  • \$\begingroup\$ Being accessible is a good thing, and we want to do that as much as we can with new people especially. It's true we wanna shoe out people that won't work quickly, but that shouldn't be 'all newcomers, except those who are already 100% on board with our norms' or whatever. I think this answer is right, but that's entirely because I think it's true that the vast majority of newcomers are greeted well, and that those who have a bad experience have one because of problems with them, basically. This answer says that, but it doesn't support that position, which is unfortunate. \$\endgroup\$ Nov 24, 2017 at 7:22
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    \$\begingroup\$ @thedarkwanderer It's hard to support with statistics without doing some massive data analysis that the site and mods aren't equipped for. I know that “well my experience is that…” isn't the strongest support, but it's the best support to hand. And I do think that we've been discussing ourselves into believing a myth, on this subject, so it's important to try to counter that even if Big Data support isn't forthcoming. \$\endgroup\$ Nov 24, 2017 at 16:26

So the usual answer is: we just downvote when we have to, and we try to leave a comment when we can and when it wouldn't start an argument. Life is messy, and as in any social circumstance, some people can decide they don't like it here for reasons that may or may not be under our control. The most we can do is do our best for most people.

Given our current feature-set I don't think there's much more we can do about that. Sometimes people are just wrong, or misinformed, or incomprehensible — those are the kinds of things we don't leave comments for because it starts arguments. (As in, it's not great they don't get feedback, but it's usually even worse if they do — at least for our site, and we're prioritising the site working well over any specific individual's notion of a good time, which I hope is understandable given what some peoples' idea of a good time is.)

That said I like illustro's suggestion of letting people give an anonymous category of feedback on posts wholly separate to comments. It's a novel idea I haven't seen brought up in the long history of meta discussion in this area. On the other hand, I am not sure if replacing "my post is at +0/-3 and I'm not sure why" is actually improved by being replaced with "my post is at +0/-3 and two of those people think I'm just wrong". It may work better for those people who can handle that kind of criticism well, but I'd venture those are the people who are already handling the unexplained downvotes well. There's another category of people who come out fists swinging whenever our voters think they're wrong or don't acknowledge their unparalleled genius: they take downvoting badly, and they'd probably still take the anonymous feedback badly and turn things ugly.

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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for the first part; as for the second part though anything anonymous will go bad immediately and will be more corrosive than any problem we have currently though. \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    Nov 23, 2017 at 11:55

Direct them to meta

You don't need to know why each person is voting your answer down as a new user. You do need to know why most people are voting your answer down, if you can't figure it out yourself. So, when you are confused about what's wrong, you should ask on meta, just like an experienced user. "Why am I getting downvotes on X" and "Why is Y closed" are very similar questions, yet for some reason we only really get questions on the latter.

Note that usually this boils down to confusion about how downvotes work and when they should be used, a confusion that no amount of meta discussion will help with (only site experience seems to change that)-- that said there are sometimes complex issues at work that an answerer might not have noticed as unusual and which meta discussion can really help with, like how frame challenges are likely to get downvoted and need to be extra specially good, how homebrew needs more support than "The DM can do whatever! How about X?", how this isn't a forum so behavior that gets you upvoted in forum places can often get you downvoted here, how each answer really for serious needs to not be just a reply to another answer, how "how do you guys do X?" is insulting rather than friendly/inviting, etc.

In any case, if you want the site to help you with the site, meta is the right place to do that, and our newcomers do fail to use it enough, especially the sorts of newcomers who we most want to see using it-- that is, those that aren't getting question banned, answer banned, tons of downvotes and closures, etc. We direct people to meta when they say 'hey, what can I do to get this open?', but maybe we could start pushing it right in our hello messages, like "If you need any help, feel free to ask about stuff on [meta], or maybe you'll find your question's already answered there!". Or something.

Some people might think 'why not chat? Chat is good for workshopping questions and answers!'. I don't really know about that, cause I'm terrible at using chat myself, but I have some bigish reasons I think meta is better for this, too:

  • Meta Q&A is permanent. Sure, chat rooms are too, but not really. See, chat rooms aren't easily searchable and indexed by subject material and so chat posts not attached to a question or answer don't really contribute to overall site quality the way Q&A does. Meta Q&A on what makes us downvote stuff adds to a ever-growing useful body of knowledge. Chat posts don't, because the knowledge can't be used.
  • Meta Q&A cuts down on noise. Sure, you can star stuff in chat, but that's like voting with no downvotes. And you sure can't flag a chat post just cause it's advice for the wrong edition! So on Meta the mod who posts an answer that basically tells you to bugger off gets 20 downvotes and 5 upvotes and has a net score of -15, which sends a pretty strong encouraging message, but on chat that mod's post would carry a mod diamond and 5 stars, and that's much less representative of how much the community agrees with that position. On Meta posts can be ranked by vote, and answers can build up over a long time.
  • Meta Q&A has no rep requirement. 50 or 30 or 20 or however much it is now may not seem like much rep, but it can be for new users. Meta has a rep requirement of 1.
  • Chat's the fun hang out zone, I think. I admit I don't really get it. But I wouldn't want my fun hang out zone to suddenly be the newbie complaining hole and productive response gallery! Idk. It just seems like chat isn't for mainline use like educating newbies. Maybe I'm wrong about this one.
  • Meta isn't time sensitive. People can post whatever. Chat has to happen in real time.
  • Meta is more established-users-not-being-jerks sensitive. People of probable high community stature in the eyes of newcomers (e.g. mods, high-rep users, highly active users) seem to feel more comfortable flagrantly violating our Be Nice policy via gossip, handwaved dismissals of ideological paradigms, personal attacks, highly charged language, etc in chat than in Meta. I don't really know why, and maybe this isn't a good reason for modifying behavior cause we should change chat instead, but it's a thing at least for now. On meta, calling the person you're responding to's ideological paradigm for the interpretation of RPGs "stupid" gets you deletion flags and downvotes galore. Doing that in chat seems to be socially accepted a lot of the time.
  • Meta answers and questions can be edited and reedited until the expression of an idea is just right. Chat posts don't work that way.

So, in any case, I think meta is a good place for newbies to sort out their confusions by asking questions.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Meta also brings the benefit of The Meta Effect™: more users see the post being discussed and vote on it, so a good post with an odd downvote or two will see its score very rapidly corrected. On the other hand, a bad post will get a strong signal it's definitely bad. Whatever way the score's going to go, it just goes that way more rapidly. // Also, I agree official site business and question workshopping should be done on meta -- if it's ever done on chat (and we rarely try to do it on chat nowadays) it's the policy that someone should link back to the chat in the post comments. \$\endgroup\$ Nov 24, 2017 at 11:42

Rant - Describing how a newcomer sees the issue

Thanks for bringing this question up. While the "experienced" users are defending the current system based on their own experiences, I would like to offer a counter view as a newcomer. This section of the post is written in a way that I don't usually find productive, but I decided to share the frustration so others might feel easier to put themselves in the shoes of unhappy new users.

When you spend time working on some project for a long time, when you see it grow gradually, you get an attachment to it and have difficulty seeing it approached in a new form. It is a bit like parents seeing their children get married. How hard the suitor tries, you always see him/her as some sort of competition, not really worth your daughter/son. (This is how experienced users see rpg.se, as a community whose unwritten conventions you need to live by. I am pretty sure I will also be like them if I decide to stay for long.)

The rate at which productive newcomers choose to leave needs to be measured in a meaningful manner. While to keep a high signal/noise ratio you need to remove bad apples, you also need to make sure you are not removing potentially delicious ones. I see myself in that camp because I believe (I might be wrong) that:

  1. I am a well-behaved user: I have read every relevant rule, whenever I earned the necessary privilege.
  2. I am usually very polite. I apologize quickly, I accept my mistakes easily, I try to find compromises, I don't refrain from deleting. Actually very often people around me complain about my being too polite and too agreeable.
  3. I do not come from other internet forums where people just troll each other. I have experience as a longtime wikipedia editor; and know how to collaborate.
  4. I am a scholar in "real life". Hence I have a lot of experience in writing, editing and refereeing.
  5. I honestly care about first-hand references. In many of the answers I have posted on to rpg.se you will see detailed research with links to official answers.
  6. I am decently productive, as reflected in the reputation I have gathered in a rather short amount of time.
  7. I usually do a lot of research before asking questions (and providing answers). You can see that I have asked a single question only so far on rpg.se and that was in response to a disagreement over another question's answer.
  8. I tend to my answers; quite often I improve the answer with new information.

So if the climate is causing people like me to leave, and if the experienced users are unable to see this as a negative thing, it is quite sad. Regarding downvotes, based on what I read on the instructions that were shown to me when I first received its privilege, I think a reasonable number of users are too liberal in their use.

Suggestion for improvement

Based on this, at the very minimum rpg.se should have an upfront wording of this problem, and an honest description for the use of downvotes. It should be clear in the documentation that often enough the correct answer will get lower votes (this is obvious, but it helps to see it written), and more importantly, you will sometimes get downvotes just because people simply "disagree" with you (and not for the reasons currently listed on the downvote-priviledge documentation, which I quote below, and which have been outlined in another question hyperlinked from the current question).

Use your downvotes whenever you encounter an egregiously sloppy, no-effort-expended post, or an answer that is clearly and perhaps dangerously incorrect.

The up-vote privilege comes first because that's what you should focus on: pushing great content to the top. Down-voting should be reserved for extreme cases. It's not meant as a substitute for communication and editing.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Thanks for this. As far as rants go this is insightful. I'm not actually sure how we can/should meaningfully measure people leaving, because people who post but go inactive may just feel no need to continue as they're not invested in the site, which is an ok scenario. (Like how it's fine if someone just makes 3 edits on Wikipedia and never appears to return.) \$\endgroup\$ Nov 27, 2017 at 14:36
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    \$\begingroup\$ @doppelgreener I would like to note that while this is an acceptable scenario, unless the said user is problematic, it is by no means a fine scenario. \$\endgroup\$ Nov 27, 2017 at 16:19
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Baskakov_Dmitriy Again, to the contrary: this site isn't designed turn away merely problem users. (It's actually bad at that. That's what mods are for, since its automatic systems to handle problem users are extremely conservative, to avoid false positives.) It's designed to also turn away users for whome the site is merely ill suited. The bar is deliberately much higher than I think you're realising. It is not only acceptable and fine, but by-design, that the site turns off more users than just problematic ones. \$\endgroup\$ Nov 27, 2017 at 21:12
  • \$\begingroup\$ I agree with you: that quote is completely inaccurate, and it would harm the site if downvotes were used solely as described therein. It should be changed. It overemphasizes the weight of a single downvote, effectively discouraging their use. Downvotes are a crucial aspect of ensuring that better answers find their way to the top—which, as you say, doesn’t always happen, but the SE system is far better than most for encouraging it. \$\endgroup\$
    – KRyan
    Nov 28, 2017 at 21:14

Group dynamics 101: SE's form of a "rite of passage"

All social groups have these features to varying degrees: how do you get "in" to the group? Your question is about the 10th meta I've read since I arrived here and noticed the barrier new users need to work through. (We had a similar discussion on aviation.se a meta few months ago). As was explained to me when I first brought it up, and has been answered in numerous metas regarding the latent hostility of the SE format as regards down votes, comments, and new users -- which is a side effect of how to make sure the voting system works as desired so that a favorable signal to noise ratio is achieved on a given SE site -- all that can be done is to encourage that those who engage on a question or answer provide useful feedback to the asker or answerer in a positive tone.

Beyond that, nobody here can control how someone reacts to an internet post. All one can do is one's best not to be hard edged or mean in a response or a comment.

Encouragement in a positive manner is roughly covered in the Be Nice! policy. No matter how nice one is, in aid of keeping the quality standards up, reactions to "read the book to me questions" still need to clearly signal to the asker that a bit of research before asking a question is required, certain forms (game rec) of question need to be closed, and any question that simply does no research before hand is eligible for "this isn't good enough" as a response.

If Illustro's suggestion is taken for action by the SE/SO gods, which doppel linked to, then that might change the state of play somewhat.

FWIW, I had similar "barriers to entry" on over a dozen internet forums long before SE was a thing. Part of my being accepted there, as well as being 'accepted' here (I got an early zing from a mod over my reaction to what I read as a hostile comment) was on me: showing that I belonged in the group.

Group dynamics, 101. Part of the deal is that the entrant still has to fit in. We've had a number of users with a lot of RPG experience who eventually decided "nope, this isn't the group for me." That's also normal.

An example of "the system is working!"

Here's an example of a "I disagree / you are wrong" downvote where a comment was left for me. What I find interesting is how often opinion gets tossed into a vote, given that I explained how to answer the play test material taking two slightly different takes on a bit of rules text. Note that two people found it helpful, and two down voted but only one pointed out what about the answer didn't satisfy them. (note: I edited the reply as a direct result of that comment, so it had to be useful as I see it). The other is not required to, and did not. For that matter, the other down vote may have completely agreed with the first bit of feedback. (So that's not a hostile down vote, is it?)

Now let's think about this for a minute: in a collegial manner one person disagreed and downvoted with an explanation, and another did not.

That's how our site works; it's how any SE site works. Newcomers have to get used to it, just as I did.

Bottom Line

Given SE format, I am not sure (beyond a change similar to what illustro suggested) what can "solve" a standard group dynamics feature of people joining a new group, or choosing not to.

  • \$\begingroup\$ @doppelspooker Does this satisfy your objections? \$\endgroup\$ Nov 23, 2017 at 14:13
  • \$\begingroup\$ Looks good to me! I think the objections to the old one were dialectic, not substantive, and you have successfully excised your dialect from this piece at this point, I think. \$\endgroup\$ Nov 24, 2017 at 7:33
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    \$\begingroup\$ Yes, this is OK. The issues that prompted moderation action on the original, and the matters to which I had personal objections, both seem to have been resolved in this version. \$\endgroup\$ Nov 24, 2017 at 10:50

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