Building a community — populated by real people or anonymous cowards

April 9th, 2010 by Grace Meng

Mimi’s comment on my last blog post about building communities made an important point – although both Yelp and Wikipedia reward their users for their activities with increased status within their communities, they do so in very different ways with very different results for their content.

There are many, many differences between Yelp and Wikipedia.  (I’m curious how many people are registered users on both sites.)

But one really obvious one is that Yelp has created an active community of reviewers who largely use real photos and real names (or at least real first name and last initial), like peter d., a member of the Yelp Elite Squad.

Wikipedia, in contrast, is a free for all.  Many people who write or edit are anonymous.  They may register with pseudonyms, or they may not register at all, so that their edits are only associated with an IP address.  There are occasionally Wikipedians who reveal their real names and provide a lot of biographical information on their profile pages, like Ragesoss, who even provides a photo.

But for every user like him, there are many more like Jayjg and Neutrality, who seems to identify with Thomas Jefferson, as well as users who have been banned.

Obviously, there are other communities that encourage the use of real identities — Facebook, MySpace, social networks in general.  And there are communities where being pseudonymous or anonymous is perfectly fine, even encouraged — Slashdot, Flickr, and many more.

So how does the use of real identities affect the community?  How does it affect the incentives to participate?  The content that’s created?

Yelp’s reward system, as described in my earlier post, is very focused on the individual.  The compliments, the Elite Squad badge, the number of “useful, funny or cool” reviews written are all clearly attached to a specific person, such as peter d. above.  Although people are complimenting peter d. for the content he’s generated for Yelp, they’re also complimenting him as a person, as he’s told that he’s funny, he’s a good writer, and so forth.

Yelpers are encouraged to develop personas that are separate from the reviews they write.  The profiles have set questions, like “Last Great Book I Read” and “My First Concert.”  They know that it’s not just about one review they’ve written, but where they’ve eaten, where they’ve gone, what they’ve done, that shows something in a generation that recognizes tribes based on what people consume.  There is a suggestion that Yelpers might interact outside of Yelp, and in the case of the Yelp Elite Squad, an assumption that they will, as one of the major privileges is that members get invited to local events.  The reputation you seek to develop on Yelp is not necessarily so different from the reputation you seek to develop in real life.

Yelp isn’t just a review site.  It’s a social network that feels almost like an online dating site — you can see how easily compliments could be used to flirt.

Wikipedia’s reward system, based on the open source software model, is more low-key.  Wikipedia does rate articles as “good articles,” and notes which articles have priority within certain classes of subjects.  If you write a lot of “good articles,” or otherwise contribute substantively, you can get various gold stars and badges as well, like the Platinum Editor Star Jayjg has on his profile page.

But the compliments are less about the Wikipedia user, even when stars are given, and more about the Wikipedia-related contribution he or she has made.  Some Wikipedians may be flirting with each other, but it seems really unlikely, at least not within any Wikipedia-built mechanism.  Jayjg clearly feels no need to tell us where he’s from and what his first concert was — it’s not relevant here.  The Wikipedians who do share more personal information aren’t required or even encouraged to do so by the Wikipedia system.

It doesn’t matter who Jayjg is.  It only matters what he does for Wikipedia.

So although both sites use rewards and feedback loops to encourage participation, they’re creating fundamentally different content with fundamentally different communities.

Yelp’s entry for the Brooklyn Botanic Garden has 126 reviews, each wholly written by a single user with that user’s photo, name, number of friends and number of reviews immediately visible.  The reviews are clearly personal and subjective, as made obvious by references to what that person specifically experienced.  In peter d.’s case, his review notes how his brother once pushed him into the Japanese Pond.

When you look at Wikipedia’s entry on the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, you see a seamless, unitary document.  Unless you click on the tabs that cover history or discussion, you won’t even see who worked on the article.  There is no personal perspective, there is no author listed with stars next to his name, there are no buttons asking you to rate that author’s contribution as “useful, funny or cool.”

This makes sense, given their respective missions.  Yelp’s goal is to generate as many reviews as possible about local businesses, recognizing that taste is really subjective.  Wikipedia’s goal is to produce a free encyclopedia with unbiased, objective content.  Yelp doesn’t want you to write one review and go away.  If you do, your review may not even show up, as the spam filter may decide you’re not trustworthy.  But of the thousands and thousands of people who’ve edited Wikipedia, the vast majority have done a few, maybe even just one edit, and never come back.  Wikipedia is a collective work; Yelp is a collection of individual works.

I don’t have an opinion on whether a community of real profiles is better or worse than a community of anonymous and pseudonymous contributors.

The different structures seem to shape the content of Yelp versus Wikipedia in appropriate ways.  What’s less clear to me is how this difference affects the make up of their communities.  Wikipedia has recently been in the news as it examines the demographics of its users, which is “more than 80 percent male, more than 65 percent single, more than 85 percent without children, around 70 percent under the age of 30.” Its rewards system and its open source model clearly attracted the right kind of enthusiastic people who were willing to write encyclopedia entries without personal recognition and glory.  Wikipedia wants more and different kinds of people to be writing entries.  Would a system like Yelp’s that encourages a more explicit sense of community and social networking change who is attracted to Wikipedia? Or would it attract precisely the wrong kind of people, the ones who couldn’t work collaboratively without explicit credit and acknowledgment?

Yelp isn’t a model of community building either, of course.  Its users are more diverse than Wikipedia’s in that its breakdown by gender is 54-46, male-female, but it’s also a very young community.  It’s less international than Wikipedia, partly because it grows city by city, but its American youth-oriented culture may not translate well either.  It’s facing its own credibility problem as business owners accuse Yelp of extortion.  It’s not surprising, as it’s fueled by people who are addicted to writing reviews and complimenting each other, but it’s paid for by advertisers who don’t participate in that same incentive structure.

Both Yelp and WIkipedia have managed to attract active, enthusiastic contributors willing to do a lot for no pay (or mostly no pay in the case of Yelp, which has admitted to paying some reviewers.)  But moving forward, which model of participation and rewards will be more attractive to more people for the right reasons?

For more on this issue, see today’s New York Times article on how news sites are considering getting rid of the anonymous option for commenters.  Or they could do what Slashdot does, which is call anyone who chooses to post anonymously an “Anonymous Coward.”

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