Are you rewarding good behavior, or just any behavior?

In general, a very good question to ask when building a reputation system…

I was recently chatting with an entrepreneur who was considering building a leader-board for his social web app. The purpose of the leader-board, he told me, was to display those users of the app who were most active, with the idea that this would incentivize them (and those not on the leader-board) to participate more. With the lure of climbing the leader-board and sitting at the top, users would engage more deeply on the site and grow the app faster.

The entrepreneur told me that he would build the leader-board by counting the actions users take such as posting, commenting, and reviewing. The highest position on the board would be the person who had taken the most actions.

This problem of engagement is a common in social web applications. Many apps start off with very few users, and in some cases (such as a social network) the app has little value until a lot of people are using it. Naturally, one of the early goals is to get enough people using the software so that newcomers have a sense of presence there…newcomers can quickly observe what’s going on and perhaps find their friends. As more people join the site and engagement increases, a virtuous cycle is established.

In this light creating a leader-board makes sense…the site creators want to reward people who are engaged the most. The mere presence of the leader-board creates a game people can play…and the gaming world has shown us that people don’t need much more than a simple challenge in order to stay engaged. (I can’t tell you how many people play minesweeper at the local library…a game which is to me is incredibly boring but to others is a nice, simple challenge to while away the time).

Early on in the building of new systems we want any engagement…people just using the app. However, we soon discover that there are different types of engagement, some of which are desirable and some not. There is good behavior and there is bad behavior. Many times mere activity doesn’t mean good behavior. Good behavior is a targeted, concrete action that makes the experience of others better.

In other words, when we build a reward (or reputation) system (a leader-board, reward badges, awards, etc) we should try to tie the reward to not just to some behavior, but good (positive) behavior. I suggested to this entrepreneur that he identify those behaviors that he wanted to see, but were also useful to others in the system, and design the app in such a way that other members of the service could give feedback on those actions. This might come in many forms, such as a way for people to rate other people’s submissions (ex: Digg’s Digg this, Amazon’s Is this review helpful?, LinkedIn’s recommendations, and eBay’s seller ratings). It could also come in the form of actions the system can aggregate, such as the New York Times’ Most Emailed or Most Blogged About. While these last two are slightly different, they aren’t focused on counting an individual’s actions but on the collective action of many, so counting is OK in this case. Whatever it is you’re counting, you want to make sure that people can’t simply run up the count without providing real value to the service.

In general, when building a reputation system it is good practice to continually ask “Are we rewarding good behavior, or just any behavior?”.

Published: July 15th, 2009