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Are downvotes needed?
Being on the receiving end of a downvote is not a good experience 99.9% of the time. The countless flavors of downvote abuse are notorious. Even for a third party, there is little value in the satisfaction of seeing an answer they dislike thoroughly downvoted, because they'd really rather not see it all. With this being such a negative feature, it must surely have some great benefit to overcome that, right?
The classic justification is of course that we need downvotes to flag bad posts, so that users can skip, filter or sort them to the last page, and moderators can prioritize them. Except we already have a "flag" action which is much more direct and logical.
Another idea was that downvotes encourage users to improve. At this point, I think this has become a ridiculous canard. Drive by downvoting has a way of going rampant, and there's no real way to stop it. But let's be naive: If downvoters actually left a comment constructive criticism, what does that do that a comment with no downvote doesn't? In fact, if you've left a constructive comment, adding a downvote serves only to irritate the victim and make it less likely that they will listen to the criticism.
Further, downvoted posts are not left for posterity to serve as an example. They are usually deleted. So if the question is to be deleted anyway, why bother downvoting it? It seems to be a superfluous addition to a normal housekeeping task, that only generates animosity and detracts from the user experience.
What is the actual justification for having downvotes?