Using Reputation: The Good, The Bad and the Ugly

Where Chapter_7 explained various patterns for displaying reputation, this chapter will focus on using it improve the application's user experience by ordering and sifting your objects

Reputation is a lens for filtering the content you need.

Envision your application's data splayed out across a vast surface, like a jumble of photo negatives spread out on a light table. As you approach this ill-disciplined mess of information, you might be looking for different things at different times. On a Saturday, diversion and entertainment are your goals-“show me those awesome photos we took at the Grand Canyon last year.” Come Monday morning, you're all business: “I need my corporate headshot for that speaking engagement!” Your goals may shift, but it's likely that there are some dimensions that remain fairly consistent.

It's likely, for instance, that-regardless of what you're looking for in the pile-that you'd prefer to see only the good stuff when you approach your light table. There's some stuff that is obviously good: they're the best photos you've ever taken (all your friends agree.) There's some stuff that is arguably good, and you'd like to see it to decide for yourself. And then there's some stuff that is flat-out bad: oops, your thumb was obscuring the lens. Or… that one was backlit. You may not want to destroy these lesser efforts, but you certainly don't want to see them every time.

Think of reputation as an extremely useful lens that you can hold up to the content of your application (or its community of contributors.) A lens that reveals quality, obscures noise and is powered by the opinions of those who've sifted through the jumble before you. In this chapter, we'll propose a number of strategies for employing this lens: where to point it, how to hold it and how to read the information that it reveals.

And, as with our light-table, these strategies will approach this problem from any number of different angles. But the end goal is generally the same: to improve the quality of contributions to your application (across the dimensions that you & your community deem valuable.) These strategies perform two basic functions: emphasize entities with higher, positive, reputation and deemphasize (or hide, or remove altogether) entities with lower, negative, reputation.

Up with the Good

We're positive people, by nature. We really do want to find the good in people. So let's start with some of the more affirmative strategies for using the reputations that your contributors and their contributions have earned.

Accentuate the Positive

Why is it a good idea to showcase high-quality contributions, front and center? Let's discuss the value of imprinting on your visitors and the effects it can have on their subsequent interactions with your site.

We've already discussed Dan Ariely's Predictably Irrationalin reference to incentives (see Chap_5-Incentives .) Ariely also explores the idea of imprinting-a phenomenon first studied in goslings, who “not only […] make initial decisions based on what's available in their environment, but […] stick with a decision once it has been made.”

This tendency is prevalent in humans as well, and Ariely explains how imprinting can explain our somewhat-irrational tendency to fixate on anchor prices for goods and services. An anchor is the ideal valuation that we hold in our minds for something: it is the price that we judge all other prices against for that thing. And it is largely a function of our first exposure to that thing. (Maybe the old Botany Suits ads were right all along-“You'll never get a second chance to make a first impression!” )

How does this matter in the Web 2.0 world of user-generated content? When someone comes to your site, there are many indicators-everything from the visual design of the site to the editorial voice presented to, heck, even the choice of domain name-that communicate to them the type of place it is, and the type of activities that people engage in there. We would argue that one indicator that speaks loudly (perhaps loudest of all) is the type of content that visitors see on display.

It is this type of evaluation, especially early on, that anchors a users opinion of your site. And remember that anchoring and imprinting aren't just short-lived dynamics: they will persist for as long as your users have a relationship with your site. If their initial valuation of your offering is high, then they're far more likely to become good citizens down the road-to contribute good content, with some attention payed to its creation and presentation. (And respect others who are doing so, as well.)

If their valuation of your offering is low? Well… did you ever date someone that you didn't see much of a future with? You might have had other compelling reasons to stay in the relationship, but you probably didn't put a lot of effort into it, right? This is what you don't want for your community-based web site. An influx of half-hearted, lackluster non-enthusiasts. Maybe you want visitors to come to your video-sharing site for its generous storage limits, but you certainly don't want them stay for that reason alone. This does not make for a vibrant and engaged community.

Rank-Order Items in Lists and Search Results

Ordering items in listings always presents something of a problem. Whether the list presented is the result of a search query, or just represents a natural ordering of items in a taxonomy, you generally have to wrestle with issues of scale (too many items in the list) and relevance (what do you show first?) Users are impatient and probably won't want to scroll or page through too many items in the list to find exactly what they want.

Simple ordering schemes only get you so far-take alphabetic, for instance. True, it does enjoy a certain internal logic and may appear to imminently predictable and useful. But it's no good if your users don't know what items they're looking for. Or what those users are named. Or where, in a paginated results listing of 890 items, the “J” s might start.

Ideally, then, you'd know something about your user's desires and direct them quickly and efficiently to that exact thing in a listing. This is the type of stuff-personalization based on past habits-that Amazon does so well. But a personalized recommendation approach assumes a lot as well: users probably have to be registered with your site. Or at least have a cookied history with it. But more importantly, they have to have been there before. After all, you can't serve up recommedations based on past actions if there are no past actions to speak of.

So, once again, your reputation system can come to the rescue. Reputation-ranked ordering is available regardless of a visitor's prior relationship with your site. In fact, community-based reputation can compensate for a whole lot of contextual deficiencies in a search setting. Figure_8-1 shows a typical search result listing on Yelp.

The query provided was a fairly broad one (the term 'pizza' scoped to Columbus, Ohio.) and lacks a certain amount of context about what I might want to see: I might have, for instance, given a more-specific search term like 'bbq pizza' and gotten a very different set of results. Or I could have been more specific in neighborhood locale. And remember, I'm just any old visitor, not a registered Yelp user, so there's no real context to be gleaned from my past history.

Figure_8-1: If I want a pizza in Columbus, odds are good I want the best pizza right? Best Matchresults on Yelp are flavored with reputation from user ratings.

With a bare minimum of context to scope on, Yelp does a pretty good job of showing me pizza restaurants that I might want to consider. They do this by rank-ordering search results based on establishments' reputations. (Their community average ratings.) In fact, they present another facet that you can order results by-“Highest Rated” that is even more explicitly powered by community reputation. In an example like this-one with a broad enough context-there's very little difference in the presentation of these two facets.

Beware of confusing your users with an overabundance of ambiguously-derived filtering mechanisms based on reputation. Most users will be hard-pressed to understand the difference between “Best Match” , “Highest Rated” and “Most Popular” . Either limit the number of options or make sure that you select the best default filter for users: the one most likely to reveal the highest-quality options with the least amount of user-provided context.

Content Showcases

One of the lowest-effort but highest-reward features you can include on your site is a gallery or a showcase that highlights excellent contributions from the community. Give this showcase a place of prominence, so that first-time visitors can't help but notice it. A handful of high-quality content should be one of the first things a new user sees on your site. (See Chap_8-accentuate_the_positive .)

Figure_8-2: Vimeo goes out of their way to welcome new visitors, including not one but three different Greeting Galleries.

Notice the view that greets you when you arrive at Vimeo (Figure_8-2 , a well-designed video sharing site. There are not one but three different ways to browse the site's best content-“Videos We Like” , “Explore” and “Right Now” . These tabs present three different types of reputation for video content: Videos We Like is an editor-influenced view (see Chap_8-Editor-Controlled-Showcases ); Explore appears to be quality-driven (probably based on usage patterns on the site, and the number of “Likes” that videos receive); and Right Now puts an emphasis on current, fresh content by incorporating decay. (See Chap_3-Decay .)

Content showcases are not only useful at the front door of your site. Smaller, contextually appropriate showcases placed at strategic locations throughout the site can continue to communicate an expectation of quality and show the best contributions within that section of the site.

Figure_8-3: Buzz on the Boardshighlights message board threads based on activity (where are hot conversations happening) then sorts based on quality (which individual posts are highest-rated.)

Figure_8-3 features wireframe designs for a mini-showcase, “Best of the Boards” , that never went live on Yahoo! UK's sports pages. The widget was designed to pull contextually-relevant conversations out of sports message boards and surface them on daily sports news articles. The goal was to educate casual, visiting article readers about the availability of community features on the site. Hopefully, to pull them into the conversation-as participants-at exactly the moment when they're most opinionated and ready to engage with others.

There's a danger with showcases: if your design gives them too much prominence (or if your community embraces them too eagerly) then you run the risk of creating a Leaderboard situation. (See Chap_7-Leaderboards_Considered_Harmful .) Placement in the showcase will take on a certain currency with members of the community, and their desire to see their content featured there may lead to some less-than-ideal behaviors. See Richard's Notes on Flickr Explorefor the contra-viewpoint on how reputation-based showcases may be a detriment to that community.

You can also highlight your best and brightest community members in a showcase. Figure_8-4 shows a “Community Stars” module, also planned but never released for Yahoo! UK Sports. This module first pulls active and high-quality contributors from the system based on poster reputation, and then does a secondary sort based on those users' posts reputation. This guarantees that-not only will the best contributors appear here-but only their top contributions will be considered for inclusion.

Figure_8-4: This module is based on contributor reputation and the quality of the posts featured, but the language downplays this. No reason to create a popularity contest, right?

The rules for people showcases are no different than for content showcases, but you may want to alter your approach to the design and presentation of this type of showcase. Labels that apply easily and comfortably to content may invoke the wrong effects when applied to the people in your community.

Don't shower featured contributors with effusive praise-“Best & Brightest” for instance. Remember, for every person you single out for praise on your site-however well-deserved that praise may be-you are simultaneously ignoring a much greater number of contributors. Don't dis-incent a large number of your community. No one likes to feel that they're laboring in anonymity, especially when others seem to be basking in praise.

The Human Touch

The idea of a completely algorithmically-determined showcase may give you pause. After all, you're placing these elements in high-profile, high-traffic locations on your site. They're bound to draw out the spammers, and ne'er-do-wells , right?

You're probably right to worry. As we caution above-and throughout this book-if placement in the showcase becomes a motivation for some of your contributors, then they will undoubtedly figure out ways to achieve that placement. You may want to design in some safeguards.

At a minimum, the models that power your showcase should include consideration of the creator's karma, to ensure that content showcased comes primarily from long-standing and mostly reputable contributors. You should also provide controls for quick removal of abusive content that somehow makes it through the reputation filters. (See Chapter_10 for a detailed case study on community-driven abuse moderation.) And, to keep the content fresh and lively (and ensure that more contributors have the opportunity to be featured) also consider flavoring the model with decay. (See Chap_4-Decay_and_Delay .)

If you're still anxious, there's no reason that a showcase gallery can't be completely editor-determined. And your reputation system can still play a big part in this workflow. Your human editors can use any combination of strategies outlined in this chapter to find the good stuff on the site-perhaps they just do a search, and rank the results based on various reputations. Or maybe they have access to some internal, eyes-only tools that leverage corporate reputations you may be keeping to quickly feret out all of the showcase-worthy content. It's still a lot of work, but it's worlds easier with a good reputation system in place than without.

Down with the Bad

Reputation is no guarantee that all of the content on your site will be phenomenal. Once you've employed some of the strategies above for promoting and surfacing good content, you may still need to obscure the lesser stuff.

Remember our discussion from Chapter 1 (Chap_1-lots_of_crap ) on the levels of content quality that your site may encounter. With these strategies, we're addressing content that falls on the lower end of the spectrum-content that is at best OK, but generally tends toward the poor-to-illegal end of the spectrum. Different tactics are appropriate at different points along the spectrum.

You may ask yourself: do I really need to actively police content quality at the midpoints of the scale? Content that is OK, or even poor certainly doesn't need to be punished, right? Isn't it enough to promote the good, and let the mediocre stuff just kinda vanish? Just let it slide into obscurity off the reputation-ranked end of the long content tail?

Perhaps, but you may want to be mindful of the community effects of allowing poor content to pile up.

Broken Windows and Online Behavior

At the community level, disorder and crime are usually inextricably linked, in a kind of developmental sequence. Social psychologists and police officers tend to agree that if a window in a building is broken and is left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken. This is as true in nice neighborhoods as in rundown ones. Window-breaking does not necessarily occur on a large scale because some areas are inhabited by determined window-breakers whereas others are populated by window-lovers; rather, one unrepaired broken window is a signal that no one cares, and so breaking more windows costs nothing.

Does the broken windows theory apply to online spaces?

Much of the tone of discourse online is governed by the level of moderation and to what extent people are encouraged to “own” their words. When forums, message boards, and blog comment threads with more than a handful of participants are unmoderated, bad behavior follows. The appearance of one troll encourages others. Undeleted hateful or ad hominem comments are an indication that this is allowable behavior and encourages more of the same. Those commenters who are normally respectable participants are emboldened by the uptick in bad behavior and misbehave themselves. More likely, they're discouraged from helping with the community moderation process of keeping their peers in line with social pressure. Or they stop visiting the site altogether.

Unchecked comment spam signals that the owner/moderator of the forum or blog isn't paying attention, stimulating further improper conduct. Anonymity provides commenters with immunity from being associated with their speech and actions, making the whole situation worse…how does the community punish or police someone they don't know? Very quickly, the situation is out of control and your message board is the online equivalent of South Central Los Angeles in the 1980s, inhabited by roving gangs armed with hate speech, fueled by the need for attention, making things difficult for those who wish to carry on useful conversations. Jason Kottke

Configurable Quality Thresholds

One of the dangers inherent in controlling content display by reputation is that of being overly presumptuous-who's to say that the decisions you make for your community about what content they do or don't want to see are the right ones? Why not let each user decide, for him or herself, what level of conversational noise they prefer? For information-rich displays (listings, comment threads, search results) consider providing a quality threshold interface element that lets users 'ratchet up' or 'ratchet down' the signal-to-noise ratio that they're prepared to accept. Another common pattern is allowing users to reverse the sort order of the content, worst evaluations first.

The granddaddy of reputation-based content moderation is Slashdot, and they employ this strategy to great effect. Figure_8-5 demonstrates Slashdot's multiple levels of content obscurity: comments below a certain score are abbreviated in a thread-just enough content from the post is left “peeking out” to preserve context and invite the curious to read more; those that dip below an even lower score are hidden altogether and no longer sully the reader's display.

Figure_8-5: Slashdot seemingly hides more posts than it displays. It's a system that favors your rights as a discriminating information consumer over everyone else's desire to be heard.

To avoid the presumption trap, make these controls user-configurable. Let users choose the quality-level that they'd like to see. Don't bury this setting as a user-preference-make it evident and easily accessible right in the main information display: otherwise it will probably never be discovered or changed. (A bonus to keeping the control easily accessible: users who want to change it frequently can do so with ease.)

You may be concerned that providing a quality threshold will unfairly punish new contributors or new contributions that haven't had enough exposure to the community to surpass the level of the threshold for display. Consider pairing this strategy with Inferred Reputation (see Chap_8-Initial_Reputation ) to give those new entrants a leg up on the quality game.

Expressing Dissatisfaction

Remember The Gong Show? It was a popular American game show in the 70s-contestants would come on and display a “talent” of their choosing to celebrity judges, any one of whom, at any point during the performance (okay, there were time limits, but that's beside the point), could strike an enormous gong to disqualify that contestant. Trust us, it was great entertainment.

Today's Web has a smaller, quieter (and, sadly, less satisfying) equivalent to that show's “gong” . It is a judgmental little widget-the Thumbs Up/Thumbs Down vote-that often accompanies user-contributed entities as a form of participatory crowd judgment. (See Chap_6-Thumbs_Up_Thumbs_Down .) Consider providing at least this level of explicit user voting for content on your site.

It's probably best to provide your users some means of expressing an opinion about content. Otherwise, they will likely co-opt whatever other mechanisms are available to do so: either user comments-and threads will quickly fill with back-and-forth bickering over peoples' spelling abilities and “+1” type posts; or Abuse Reports (discussed below.) And we don't want to encourage inappropriate abuse reporting. Sometimes arming the community with a simple, satisfying mechanism to say “I disagree” is enough.

Out With the Ugly

And then there's just some stuff that you don't want to keep around. At all. It's offensive and violates your TOS. Or it's illegal and violates common taste. This is the stuff that should very quickly acquire a bad reputation. You'll want your community to be able to identify this stuff quickly and effectively, and you'll want your system to be able to act on it efficiently.

Report Abuse

Reporting Abuse is serious business. It is an explicit input into your reputation system unlike any other: it potentially has legal repercussions; it is basically a user-to-user reputation claim (which we generally discourage-see Chap_6-Good_Inputs ; users should not think of it as an evaluative act-is this content good or bad-rather it should feel like a straightforward act of discovery: “Whoah! This shouldn't be here!”

Your interface design should attempt to reduce the likelihood that users will conflate abuse reporting with other, more evaluative, reputation inputs. Discourage users from reporting anything that is not actual abuse. Figure_8-6 demonstrates a number of design changes that the Yahoo! Answers team enacted to clarify the intent of all the controls, and-as a side benefit-to reduce the likelihood that users would erroneously file reports against undeserving questions or answers.

Figure_8-6: Yahoo! Answers redesigned a number of reputation input mechanisms, both to make their semantic meanings more clear (adding labels to most of the icons, for instance) but also to remove the proximity of one of the most critical inputs, Report It.

In general, here are some good guidelines for maintaining the fidelity of your Abuse Reports, to ensure that they remain good inputs that produce high-confidence content reputations: * Keep the Report Abuse mechanism clear, and distinct from other possibly-confused reputation inputs. Place it at a visibly-noticeable distance from the piece of content that it acts upon. (Though, of course, this is a design balance: it should be close enough that the mechanism and the entity still appear associated.)

  • Require reporters to be signed in (which, of course, requires that they be registered.) You can assure reports that their identities won't be revealed to others in the community, but they should understand that you will have access to it. There are two benefits to this: it will help keep folks honest; and you can use a user's history of abuse reports to track their reputation as well. (See Chap_8-Abuse_Reporter_Karma .)
  • Put just enough of a “gateway” in place to discourage flippant reports. Ask for enough supporting information for staff to make a judgment, but don't ask for a bunch of information that your application could just capture contextually. For instance, pass along any content UIDs or user-identifying information that the report may need.
  • In general, try to maintain a fine balance between ease-of-reporting and too much ease. Make it too hard, and concerned users may just opt to leave the site after viewing too much objectionable content. Make it too easy and it'll tempt the community to hurl sticks and stones unnecessarily.

Just can't get enough abuse? The Report Abuse pattern is also covered in Designing Social Interfaces(O'Reilly, 2009.) See its online discussion at

Who Watches the Watchers?

You've probably already spotted a potential for abuse of another kind here. How can you guard against spurious and malicious use of Report Abuse mechanisms? Inevitably, some in your community will decide that tarring others' content with the suspicion of abuse is an easy path to making their own content stand out. Or they'll use abuse reports to carry out a personal vendetta, or further their own political viewpoint, or… well, you get the point.

The concern is a valid one. Depending on your abuse mitigation process, the costs can vary. If all abuse reports are vetted by staff, then-at the very least-you've lost the time and effort of a staff intervention and investigation. If your application is designed to immediately act on abuse reports and make some mechanistic determination about the content, then you run the risk of punishing content unnecessarily and unfairly. If left to persist, that situation will harm your site's credibility over time.

This is a compelling reason to keep accurate karma scores for all parties involved. Whether your mitigation process is hands-on, highly automated, or some combination of the two, swift and good judgments can only be aided by having as much information about both 'sides' as possible. Consider keeping a secret corporate reputation (call it Abuse Reporter reputation) that tracks users' past performance at finding and reporting abusive content. There are a variety of inputs that could weigh into this karma score: * The reporter's own past contributions to the site. (Or length of membership, or other indicators of their value to the community.)

  • The reporter's “success rate” at identifying abusive content: from past reports, how many were legitimate? How many ended up being overturned or denied by qualified staff?
  • The volume of reports that this user files. (Note that, depending on the context, a high volume of reports can be considered a positive or a negative.)

A karma score based on these inputs will be invaluable for decision making about the accuracy of any individual report, when compared to the reputations of the reported content and/or the karma scores of the person who posted the disputed content.

Teach Your Users How to Fish

Up to now in this chapter, we've focused on reputation-related strategies for improving the perceived quality of content on your site. (Promote this, demote that, whoops lets hide this one altogether…) The hope is that, by shaping the perceptions of quality, you'll influence your user's behavior and actually see real improvements in the quality of contributions. You'll somewhat have to take it on faith that this will work, and-to be fair-the Virtuous Circle (Chap_1-virtuous_circle ) is, at best, an indirect and eventual method for positively influencing your community.

Aren't there some more direct ways? Why yes, there are. As it turns out, the methods and methodology of gathering reputation give us an excellent set of tools to help educate your users, and teach them how to be better contributors. (Or editors, or readers, or…) Using these techniques, you will be able to: * Let contributors know “how they're doing” on an ongoing basis.

  • Give them specific and-in some cases-quantifiable feedback on the community's response to their contributions.
  • Suggest new and different strategies to them, in order to continually improve their content quality.

Inferred Reputation for Content Submissions

An approach that serves a number of different ends is the concept of Inferred Reputation for content submissions. With this approach, your application presumes a level of quality for a submission based on the karma of the content submitter and an appraisal of the intrinsic qualities of the submission itself. This appraisal may take any number of factors into consideration: the presence of profanity; the completeness of accompanying metadata; the length or brevity of the submission; and other community- or application- specific evaluations that make sense within the given context.

Once evaluated, the content submission is given an initial reputation-this can be displayed alongside the submission until it's garnered enough attention to display an actual, earned reputation, as in Figure_8-7 . (How will you know when to switch over to display the actual reputation? When enough community members have rated the item that it's surpassed the liquidity threshold. See Chap_3-Low_Liquidity_Effects .)

Figure_8-7: In the absence of any specific knowledge of this post (only one person has rated it), Yahoo! Message Boards assumes that it's a 3-star post.

Why would you want to use inferred reputations? For a number of reasons.

Inferred reputation is all-but-mandatory if your application features a Configurable Quality Threshold (Chap_8-Configurable_Quality_Threshold .) When users have their threshold for content visibility set too high, then-unless you show Initial Ratings-new postings will, by default, not appear at all in content listings. Which, of course, means that noone will rate those items, which means that noone will see those items… you can see the problem here. You will have created a self-referential feedback loop. (See Chap_9-Beware-Feedback-Loops .)

Inferred reputations can also help influence contributor behavior in positive ways. Their simplest, but perhaps most critical, function is to educate your users that the quality of their contributions have consequences. Put simply: if they post better stuff, more people will see it. A visible and tangible initial rating makes this case more strongly than any number of admonitions or reminders would.

Just-in-Time Reputation Calculation

A powerful enhancement to inferred reputation is the idea of showing the assumed rating to the content contributor even before she has contributed it. This amplifies the positive-modeling benefits mentioned above.

Then, you can allow the contributor to them modify her content submission before posting it, in an effort to improve the quality, improve the initial rating assigned, and be featured more prominently on the site. The facets for improvement can be any of a number of things: simple formatting fixes; community-standards violations (eg. SHOUTING IN ALL CAPS); or perhaps modifying a submission to be less derivative or repetitive of a submission that's come before it.

Figure_8-8: Don't like the rating that your new post is about to display? Fix it!

Figure_8-8 shows one such embodiment of these just-in-time principles. This draft of a design for Yahoo! Message Boards affords the message-board poster an opportunity to reflect on what they're about to post, validate it against community standards and-if desired-change the message to improve its standing.

A Private Conversation

In the last chapter, we discussed Personal Reputations (Chap_7-Personal_Reputations ) and hinted at some of their utility. But you may still have questions: why keep a personal reputation? If you have no intent to display it to the community (a “public” reputation) then shouldn't a completely hidden (a “corporate” ) reputation suffice? Why would you keep a reputation, and go to the bother of displaying it but only for the person to whom it applies?

Personal reputations have great utility as a type of “running internal dialog” between a site and its users: show personal reputations to users to let them know “how they're doing” with respect to certain facets of their engagement with the community. Upon login, for example, you might show a user the Learning Level they've achieved toward a certain task so that they may track their growth progression and understand what actions are necessary-or what skills must be mastered-in order to achieve the next level on the scale.

LinkedIn keeps a very simple, but compelling, type of reputation that serves this end. (Figure_8-9 .) It shows you the degree of completeness that your LinkedIn Profile has achieved.

Figure_8-9: Your LinkedIn profile is only 25% complete?!? Better get crackin'!

The motivational benefits of this feature are enormous. There is a certain, compulsive game-like quality to its presence. Author and online community authority Amy Jo Kim has written and presented about the appeal of “collecting” (and the power of completing a set) in game mechanics, and the applicability of these impulses to online experience. This LinkedIn widget deftly takes advantage of these deep underlying impulses that motivate us all.

It's almost impossible to see that partially-empty progress bar and not want to fill it up. LinkedIn takes the additional step of providing hints about the exact ways to accomplish this.

So what, then, is the advantage of handling this as a personal conversation between site and user? Notice that LinkedIn doesn't show you other people's profile completeness scores. Leaving this as a personal reputation means that the user is never stigmatized. She is free to advance and proceed at her own pace, but is never branded or labeled in a public fashion. Her interaction with your site remains hers and hers alone. Even on a largely social site, not everything needs to belong to the commons. Many times, reputation is better kept discrete.

Course-Correcting Feedback

Creating content to share online can be a lonely business, sometimes. Sometimes it's hard to know exactly how you're doing. This is a beneficial side-effect of gathering inputs for content reputation: you can package the results of those inputs up, and present them back to content contributors in educational and motivational ways. Give them detailed direction on how well the community is accepting their contributions, and even suggest ways to increase that acceptance.

This, again, can function within the realm of personal, site-to-user, reputations and need not be a public affair. Of course, any reputations that are public will benefit contributors as well: they are free to review and compare their standings against those of their peers. But you should also feel free to give even more feedback to a contributor about “how they're doing” in a personal and confidential fashion. Flickr presents a rich dashboard of statistics about your photos, including many details of how the community has responded. (See Figure_8-10 .)

Figure_8-10: Favorites, comments and views all feed your photos reputation on Flickr. The Statsfeature breaks them down for you.

Reputation is Identity

Imagine you're at a party, and your friend Ted wants you to meet his friend, Mary. He might very well say something like… “I want you to meet my friend, Mary. She's the brunette over by the buffet line.” A fine, beginning, to be sure. It helps to know who you're dealing with.

But now imagine that Ted ended there as well. He doesn't take you by the hand, walk you over to Mary, and introduce you face to face. Maybe he walks off to get another drink. Um… this does not bode well for your new friendship with Mary.

Sadly, until fairly recently, this has been the state of identity on much of the Web. When people were represented at all, they were often nothing more than a meager collection of sparse data elements: a username; maybe an avatar; just enough identifying characteristics that you might recognize them again later, but not much else.

With the advent of social on the web, things have improved. Perhaps the biggest improvement has been that now people's relationships formulate a sizable component of their identity and presence on most sites. Now, mutual friends or acquaintances can act as a natural entree to forming new relationships. So at least “Ted” now will go that extra step and walk you over to that buffet table for a proper introduction.

But, you still won't know much about Mary, will you? Once introductions are out of the way, what will you possibly have to talk about? The addition of reputation to your site will provide that much-needed final dimension to your users' identities: depth. Wouldn't it be nice to review a truly rich and deep view of Mary's identity on your site before deciding what you and she will or won't have in common?

Here are but a few reasons why user identities on your site will be stronger with reputation than they would be without. * Reputation is based on history and the simple act of recording those histories-a user's past actions, or voting history, or the history of their relationship to the site-provides you with a lot of content (and context) that you can present to other users. This is a much richer model of identity than just a display-name and an avatar.

  • Visible histories reveal shared affinities and allow users with common interests to find each other. If you are a Top Contributor in the Board Games section of a site, then like-minded folks can find you, follow you, or invite you to participate in their activities.

You'll find contexts where this is not desirable. On a question-and-answer site like Yahoo! Answers, for instance, don't be surprised to find out that many users won't want their questions about gonorrhea or chlamydia to appear as part of their historical record. Err on the side of giving your users control over what appears, or give them the ability to hide their participation history altogether.

  • A past is hard to fake. Most site identities are cheap. In and of themselves, they just don't mean much. A couple of quick form-fields, a 'Submit' button and practically anyone (or no one-bots welcome!) can become a full-fledged member of most sites. It is much harder, however, to fake a history of interaction with a site for any duration of time.

Figure_8-11: People will pay more for a developed identity on World of Warcraft than they paid for the game itself. (Even when you factor in 12 months of subscription fees!)

We don't mean to imply that it can't be done-harvesting “deep” identities is practically an offshoot industry of the MMORPG world (See Figure_8-11 .) But it does provide a fairly high participatory hurdle to jump. When done properly, user karma can assure some level of commitment and engagement from your users. (Or at least help you to ascertain those levels quickly.)

  • Reputation disambiguates identity conflicts. Hopefully, you've moved away from publicly identifying users on your site by their unique identifier. (You have read the Tripartite Identity Pattern, right? But this introduces a whole new headache: identity spoofing. If your public namespace doesn't guarantee uniqueness (or even if it does-it'll be hard to guard against similar-appearing/l33t-speak equivalents and the like) then you'll have this problem.

Once your community is at scale, trolls will take great delight in appropriating others' identities-assuming the same display name, uploading the same avatar - purely in an effort to disrupt conversations. It's not a perfect defense, but always associate a contributor's identity with his or her participation history or reputation to help mitigate these occurrences. You will, at least, have armed the community with the information they need to decide who's legit and who's an interloper.

These are some of the reasons that extending user identities with reputation is useful. What follows are a series of considerations for how to do so most effectively. Some methods for surfacing reputation at the right spots in your interface to most effectively aid users in making good judgments about each other.

On the User Profile

The User Profile is an invaluable asset in your social strategy. In many ways, it provides the most “tangible” and visible presence for the users on your site. It functions as the locus of a users identity and, as such, can accommodate a number of different reputation display patterns. Consider showing each of the following on user profiles.

My Affiliations

By now, you should be aware that reputation is earned within a context. While individual actors are probably the last person you should ask about their reputation, each of us does control one very important component of our reputations: the contexts we choose to affiliate ourselves with. Sometimes, the degree of reputation you've earned somewhere says less than the fact that you chose to frequent that context in the first place.

Surfacing the breadth and variety of reputable contexts that a user frequents can be crucial information for other users to make value judgments about that person. You should, of course, allow the profile-holder some degree of control over exactly which affiliations they choose to display or obscure. Some models allow for displaying only those associated contexts that a user has requested to appear on their profile.

Figure_8-12: You're judged by the company you keep. Even a simple list of groups that you've joined on LinkedIn says a lot about your interests and how you choose to use your time and energy.

Figure_8-12 shows a typical LinkedIn profile with group affiliations displayed. These can be considered self-selected reputable contexts-the particular combination of them can tell an evaluator a lot about a person, and provides opportunities for establishing shared interests.

Earned reputations can also provide deeper insight into a users affiliations and interests. Figure_8-13 shows a user and the participation medals he's earned on Yahoo! Message Boards. Here, affiliation information is a powerful tool for assessing this user's competencies.

Figure_8-13: Participation history adds another dimension to your affiliations. Now you can see not only where Jonny Reb spends his time, but exactly how much he's invested in each context.

My History

An extremely popular piece of reputation information to disclose on a user profile (and a profoundly powerful one) is simple a user's “Member Since” date. Like a business establishment that boasts of its decades-or-centuries old history, users on your site, once they achieved a certain seniority of engaging with it, will want others to know and honor their status of longevity.

There are other important pieces of historical information that you should consider providing. Perhaps just a simple listing of a user's last N contributions to the site. Yahoo! Answers uses the user profile as a centralized, easy-access “dashboard view” onto a person's history of contributions. (See Figure_8-14 .)

Figure_8-14: Let your users' words speak for themselves. Yahoo! Answers lets you review a user's Questions and Answers from the profile, regardless of which context the question was originally posted in.

My Achievements

First popularized by the Xbox 360 gaming platform, the notion of rewarding specific user achievements is catching on. Figure_8-15 shows one such embodiment on the software programming Q&A site Once they're earned, Achievements can be displayed on a users profile in perpetuity, providing a fun, engaging and browsable history of that users interaction with the site.

Figure_8-15: Stack Overflow awards badges for any number of user achievements. woot!for instance, celebrates users who have visited the site each day for 30 days.

At the Point of Attribution

It can be very powerful to display a user's reputation directly within the context of their contribution. Amazon identifies “Top Reviewers” in situ, right at the point where you're reading one of their reviews. (See Figure_8-16 .) If done discretely, this approach is useful for a couple of different reasons.

It provides some differentiation between items. In a long scrolling page of product reviews, or music playlists, or video contributions, it can be a nice, quick visual scanning aid to see certain contributors called out for special attention.

Figure_8-16: There's no need to leave the page to see this reviewer's bona fides.

To Differentiate Within Listings

In a long scannable list of user-generated content, it may be useful to visually “tag” or identify contributions that have achieved a certain level of reputation. (Or whose contributors have.) The goal is to aid in scannability, so only do this if the complexity of the interface allows for it.

It helps, when doing this, if you've set reasonable boundaries for the exclusivity (See Chap_9-Exclusivity-Thresholds ) of reputations. Otherwise, everything will be tagged as special and nothing will stand out. Figure_8-17 is probably on the borderline of how much reputation information you should attempt to codify into your content listings.

Figure_8-17: Sporting News assigns contributor ranks to each blogger, and annotates lists of blog-entries with their Star Rank. (But, boy, that's a whole lot of stars!)

Putting It All Together

We've help you identify all of the reputation features for an application - the goals, objects, scope, inputs, outputs, processes, and the sorts filters. You're armed with a rough reputation model diagram, design patterns for displaying and utilizing your reputation scores. These make up your reputation product requirements. In Chapter_9 we describe how to turn these plans into action: building and testing the model, integrating with your application, and performing the early reputation model turning.

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