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User Motivations & System Incentives

Reputation Wednesday is an ongoing series of essays about reputation-related matters. This week's entry summarizes our model for describing user motivations and incentives for participation in reputation systems.

This is a short summary of a large section of Chapter 6 of our book, Building Web Reputation Systems, entitled Incentives for User Participation, Quality, and Moderation. For this blog post, the content is being shuffled a bit. First we will name the motivations and related incentive models, then we'll describe how reputation systems interact with each motivational category. To read a more detailed discussion of the incentive sub-categories, read the Chapter 6.

Motivations and Incentives for social media participation:

  • Altruistic motivation: for the good of others
    • Tit-for-Tat or Pay-it-Forward incentives: I do it because someone else did it for me first"
    • Friendship incentives: "I do it because I care about others who will consume this"
    • Know-it-All or Crusader or Opinionated incentives: "I do it because I know something everyone else needs to know"
  • Commercial motivation: to generate revenue
    • Direct revenue incentives: Extracting commercial value (better yet, cash) directly from the user as soon as possible
    • Branding incentives: Creating indirect value by promotion - revenue will follow later
  • Egocentric motivation: for self-gratification
    • Fulfillment incentives: The desire to complete a task, assigned by oneself, a friend, or the application
    • Recognition incentives: The desire for the praise of others
    • The Quest for Mastery: Personal and private motivation to improve oneself

Altruistic or Sharing Incentives

Altruistic, or sharing, incentives reflect the giving nature of users who have something to share-a story, a comment, a photo, an evaluation-and who feel compelled to share it on your site. Their incentives are internal: they may feel an obligation to another user or to a friend, or they may feel loyal to (or despise) your brand.

When you're considering reputation models that offer altruistic incentives, remember that these incentives exist in the realm of social norms-they're all about sharing, not accumulating commercial value or karma points. Avoid aggrandizing users driven by altruistic incentives-they don't want their contributions to be counted, recognized, ranked, evaluated, compensated, or rewarded in any significant way. Comparing their work to anyone else's will actually discourage them from participating.

(See more on Tit-for-Tat, Friend, and Know-it-All altruistic incentives.)

Commercial Incentives

Commercial incentives reflect people's motivation to do something for money, though the money may not come in the form of direct payment from the user to the content creator. Advertisers have a nearly scientific understanding of the significant commercial value of something they call branding. Likewise, influential bloggers know that their posts build their brand, which often involves the perception of them as subject matter experts. The standing that they establish may lead to opportunities such as speaking engagements, consulting contracts, improved permanent positions at universities or prominent corporations, or even a book deal. A few bloggers may actually receive payment for their online content, but more are capturing commercial value indirectly.

Reputation models that exhibit content control patterns based on commercial incentives must communicate a much stronger user identity. They need strong and distinctive user profiles with links to each user's valuable contributions and content. For example, as part of reinforcing her personal brand, an expert in textile design would want to share links to content that she thinks her fans will find noteworthy.

But don't confuse the need to support strong profiles for contributors with the need for a strong or prominent karma system. When a new brand is being introduced to a market, whether it's a new kind of dish soap or a new blogger on a topic, a karma system that favors established participants can be a disincentive to contribute content. A community decides how to treat newcomers-with open arms or with suspicion. An example of the latter is eBay, where all new sellers must "pay their dues" and bend over backward to get a dozen or so positive evaluations before the market at large will embrace them as trustworthy vendors. Whether you need karma in your commercial incentive model depends on the goals you set for your application. One possible rule of thumb: If users are going to pass money directly to other people they don't know, consider adding karma to help establish trust.

(See more on Direct revenue and Branding commercial incentives.)

Egocentric Incentives

Egocentric incentives are often exploited in the design online in computer games and many reputation based web sites. The simple desire to accomplish a task taps into deeply hard-wired motivations described in behavioral psychology as classical and operant conditioning (which involves training subjects to respond to food-related stimulus) and schedules of reinforcement. This research indicates that people can be influenced to repeat simple tasks by providing periodic rewards, even a reward as simple as a pleasing sound.

But, an individual animal's behavior in the social vacuum of a research lab is not the same as the ways in which we very social humans reflect our egocentric behaviors to one another. Humans make teams and compete in tournaments. We follow leaderboards comparing ourselves to others and comparing groups that we associate ourselves with. Even if our accomplishments don't help another soul or generate any revenue for us personally, we often want to feel recognized for them. Even if we don't seek accolades from our peers, we want to be able to demonstrate mastery of something-to hear the message "You did it! Good job!"

Therefore, in a reputation system based on egocentric incentives, user profiles are a key requirement. In this kind of system, users need someplace to show off their accomplishments-even if only to themselves. Almost by definition, egocentric incentives involve one or more forms of karma. Even with only a simple system of granting trophies for achievements, users will compare their collections to one another. New norms will appear that look more like market norms than social norms: people will trade favors to advance their karma, people will attempt to cheat to get an advantage, and those who feel they can't compete will opt out altogether.

Egocentric incentives and karma do provide very powerful motivations, but they are almost antithetical to altruistic ones. The egocentric incentives of many systems have been over-designed, leading to communities consisting almost exclusively of experts. Consider just about any online role playing game that survived more than three years. For example, to retain its highest-level users and the revenue stream they produce, Worlds of Warcraft must continually produce new content targeted at those users. If they stop producing new content for their most dedicated users, their business will collapse. This elder game focus stunts WoW's growth -- parent company Blizzard has all-but-abandoned improvements aimed at acquiring new users. When new users do arrive (usually in the wake of a marketing promotion), they end up playing alone because the veteran players are only interested in the new content and don't want to bother going through the long slog of playing through the lowest levels of the game yet again.

(See more on Fulfillment, Recognition, and Quest-for-Mastery egocentric incentives.)