Posts Tagged ‘Slashdot’

Building a community — populated by real people or anonymous cowards

Friday, April 9th, 2010

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.”

Building a community — with karma and elite squads

Thursday, April 8th, 2010

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 reviewsMenupages, 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.

The meaning of membership

Thursday, April 1st, 2010

BSA Member Card, Focht, Flickr/Creative Commons License Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works

We’ve been talking about a “datatrust” for awhile now, why we think we need one, how we envision it as a long-lasting institution, what kind of technologies we might employ for it to provide measurable guarantees around privacy.

But we’re now starting to get down to the nitty-gritty.  How will it actually work?  What will it mean to an actual researcher, nonprofit organization, policy-maker?  To you?

First and foremost, we imagine the datatrust as a member-based data bank where organizations and individuals can safely contribute personal information to inform research and public policy.

The member-based part is key.  We plan to be both non-partisan and absolutely transparent.  We have no particular academic or policy ax to grind. Our only goal is to maximize the quantity, quality and diversity of sensitive data that is made available to the public.  To ensure that decisions aren’t made even with an unconscious bias, we plan to build a decentralized structure that relies on the participation and contribution of members to build and sustain the datatrust.

But the word membership can mean a lot of different things.  When my local public radio station exhorts me to be a member, membership doesn’t seem to come with something more than a tote bag.  In contrast, if you’re a Wikipedian, it means you’ve actually written or edited an entry, and the more you participate, the more access and privileges you get, including the right to vote for members of the Wikimedia Foundation Board.

So for the past couple of months, I’ve been looking at member-based communities.  Not all of them would call themselves member-based communities, but they all have in common a structure that requires participation from a large group of people.  Some are nonprofits, some are businesses running social networks; most are online, a few are not.  Over the next couple of posts, I’m going to summarize how these communities work, what motivates the members, how the communities monitor themselves, and how diverse they are, because all of these issues will inform the decisions we make in creating our datatrust.

Here are the ten communities included in this study:

MySpace is one of the world’s largest social networks with about 125 million users, though Facebook has in the last year surpassed MySpace with the number of users and pageviews both in the U.S. and the rest of the world.  The look and feel of MySpace is very different from Facebook, since MySpace users are allowed to customize their pages.  There’s also been a lot of press about the demographic differences between MySpace and Facebook, but those differences are probably disappearing as Facebook simply grows and grows.  MySpace remains more popular than Facebook as a site for bands and music.

Facebook is the world’s largest social network with about 400 million users.  Despite its popularity and recent news that it even surpassed Google in Internet traffic, it’s also been the center of controversy, particularly regarding user privacy and terms of use, with each major change made to the site.

Yelp is a social network-based user review site for local businesses in multiple cities in the U.S.  It’s growing much faster than older sites like Citysearch, and its spawned offline events where really avid reviewers meet and socialize.  It has also gotten controversy with accusations that it extorts businesses to take out ads in return for highlighting good reviews or pulling bad ones.  Although Yelp has denied these accusations, a class-action lawsuit was recently filed against Yelp.

Flickr is a popular social network-based photo-sharing site.  Unlike many photo-sharing sites like Kodak Gallery or Photobucket, Flickr has emphasized sharing photos with the general public and organization by crowdsourcing via tags. Although it does have some services for printing photos and mugs, its main service is photo-hosting and storage, particularly for bloggers and photographers.  In addition to hosting photos, Flickr also manages projects like “The Commons” with the Library of Congress and other institutions interested in putting their public domain photos in wider circulation.

Slashdot is a news aggregator for self-professed nerds with estimated traffic of 5.5 million users per month.  It shares news stories contributed by its users, who also comment on the stories and moderate the comments.  Useful contribution is rewarded with karma points, which increases the privileges each user gets.

Wikipedia is “the free encyclopedia anyone can edit,” run by the nonprofit Wikimedia Foundation.  The number of named accounts for writers and editors is at about 11 million; about 300,000 have edited Wikipedia more than ten times.  Despite early skepticism, Wikipedia has become one of the most trafficked sites online and has expanded into multiple countries around the world.  Wikipedia has clearly developed a community of avid and enthusiastic users who contribute without monetary compensation, but in its tenth year, it is evaluating the lack of diversity among Wikipedians (only 13% of contributors are women, for one) and what steps it should take to provide access to a free encyclopedia all over the world. Wikipedia has also instituted a number of changes over the years to deal with vandalism and inaccuracies.

Open Source Software – rather than look at one particular open source project, for this study, I focused on the book Producing Open Source Software by Karl Fogel, which describes how projects should work.  Obviously, actual projects will vary widely, but we decided this was an area worth looking at because the open source movement has spent years figuring out how to structure shared work.

The Sierra Club is one of the oldest grassroots environmental organizations in the U.S.  It has 1.3 million members, but because it is not a primarily online organization, it isn’t easy to evaluate the activities of its members online.  However, it recently created a series of social media sites for online networking among Sierra Club members and supporters and our report focuses primarily on this aspect of their member activities.

The Park Slope Food Coop is a local cooperative grocery store in Park Slope Brooklyn.  (DISCLAIMER: I’ve been a member since 2005, and my research on how it works is based on my experiences there.)  Unlike many coops, membership is predicated on work.  All of its approximately 150,000 members are required to work a two hour-45 minute shift every four weeks, which reduces labor costs and thus reduces prices.  Despite being a place many people love to hate, it continues to thrive and attract new members.

Habitat for Humanity International is a major nonprofit organization that seeks to eliminate poverty housing and homelessness by building decent housing around the world.  (DISCLAIMER: I volunteered for Habitat for Humanity in high school and college and participated in a fundraising bike trip in 1999.)  Like the Sierra Club, it is also an offline organization, but its website provided more detailed information on how its affiliates work and I drew on my personal experience in trying to understand how Habitat encourages and retains volunteers.


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