In high school psychology, I learned that rats that are rewarded for good behavior, i.e., given positive reinforcement, will repeat the good behavior. Humans aren’t really that different.
Several of the online communities I looked at need their members to do stuff to make their communities work. Some of them have decided to explicitly reward their members for good contributions. For example, Yelp is a site with reviews of local businesses. It knows that ratings alone aren’t very useful, as people have different standards, and it also knows one-line reviews claiming a restaurant is “great” or “terrible,” aren’t very informative either.
Yelp encourages detailed, specific reviews in several ways. Yelp invites members to rate each other’s reviews as “useful, funny or cool.” Members can send each other compliments, little encouraging notes about what good writers they are or how cool they are. Yelp removes reviews it deems to be rants or shills. (This has led to some controversy as business owners have claimed Yelp removes reviews to extort business owners to take out ads, to which Yelp has responded with some changes.) The biggest gold star, literally a “badge” that gets attached to the user’s profile, is reserved for Yelpers in the Yelp Elite Squad. To be eligible to become a member of the Elite Squad, a reviewer must post a real photo, use a real first name and last initial, and “be active Yelp evangelists and role models, on and off the site.” Members of the Elite Squad are invited to local events, and they become another community onto themselves.
As a result, reviews on Yelp are considerably more detailed than reviews on comparable sites, and there are more of them. For Abraco, a coffee shop in the East Village, Yelp lists 241 reviews. Menupages, which doesn’t do any of the things Yelp does, has 7, and they tend to be a bit more prosaic:
Of course, everything has a downside. Yelpers have a tendency to be self-indulgent in the way they write, with details about their personal lives and more that aren’t always relevant to the business they’re reviewing at hand. But the details aren’t totally worthless. I appreciate the way Yelp encourages detailed reviews because the details are often helpful in helping me determine whether the reviewer is someone whose taste is similar to mine. When someone tells me that he doesn’t like Chinese food and thought the restaurant should be serving white chicken meat, I know instantly that he does not have the same taste as me, and I will not rely on his review. Whereas if that same person had only written, “Terrible food!”, I wouldn’t know enough to judge.
If I really want to know more about the reviewer’s tastes and preferences, I can even click on the reviewer’s name and see what else he or she has reviewed. I can get a much better sense of who Mark L. is than of TheJuicyShow.
Similarly, Slashdot uses “karma” to encourage smart comments. As a news aggregator for self-described nerds, Slashdot is as much a place to comment on stories as to read them. Anyone who has read open comments on popular blogs knows that they are often full of inflammatory rants where people spout rather than read/listen to what others are saying. Slashdot tries to deal with this by rating Slashdot users on their comments. The better your comments, the more “karma” you get, in the form of assessments that your comment is “insightful,” “interesting,” etc. Karma give you the power to moderate others’ comments, though you have to spend the points within 3 days. Good comments are considered an “achievement” that gets included on the profile of each user, which means, like Yelp, Slashdot users have personas that can be viewed by clicking on their profiles.
Wikipedia awards activities in a slightly different way. Although Wikipedians also get rewarded with higher status, it’s not in as prominent a way as it is for Yelp or Slashdot users. There are no badges or notes like “Insightful.” Rather, as registered users contribute, they gain a reputation in that community. Those who meet the threshold for number of edits can vote in Wikimedia board elections, as well as be a candidate for the board. Other privileges, like administrator privileges, are granted to those who request them after a lengthy review of their contributions. Wikipedia is following the model of open source software projects where people are granted more responsibility, like commit privileges, as they demonstrate that they do good work. They’re rewarded with status, but not in as prominent a way as the badge Yelp Elite Squad members get.
Offline organizations also reward good participation, with awards that recognize exceptional volunteers and positions of leadership. Habitat for Humanity affiliate chapters are often run by volunteers who have taken on responsibility after demonstrating their commitment. But because activities online are transparent to the whole community, the rewards given for those activities are similarly transparent as well. It’s easier to reward online activities in small as well as large ways. It’s also easier to keep track of large groups of people online. Thus, the reward system for these online organizations is more visible and more apparent than for offline organizations.
And because the rewards systems are visible and apparent, they really affect the culture of the community. There are people who claim to be addicted to Yelp; there are also people who really don’t care about being made a member of an elite squad. Yelp’s reward system probably repels as many people as it attracts, and it’s important for anyone building a community to think about who they want to attract and how.