Hot Topics in Communities: Reputation Systems

This is the first post in what I hope will be a short series of posts about hot topics in community management.

When I talk about reputation systems (or a reputation engine), I am referring to ways to award points or some other status measure to community members as a “reward” for participating. Jive’s Clearspace and Forums products have a reputation system built into the application awarding points for posting discussions, blogs, wiki documents, and correctly answering questions. The points accumulated by users show up on the users’ profiles and in “Top Members” boxes for specific communities throughout the site. I use this only as an example, since it is the reputation system that I have the most experience using.

The Good:

People like getting points and being recognized for their contributions within a community. It encourages participation and keeps people motivated to participate in the community. Community managers can use the reputations to highlight and reward key members with additional access (moderation access, etc.) or with other rewards like t-shirts.

The Bad:

People will figure out how your system works, and they will find creative ways to game it. Maybe they respond to posts with trivial answers or post discussions with content of little value solely to gain points. This is especially true in technical communities where people will game it just for the challenge. This leads many people to claim that reputation systems are worthless and should never be used.

The Practical:

I’m not an “all or nothing” kind of girl. I think that there is a middle ground where carefully configured reputation systems can be useful.

I suggest putting the responsibility on other community members to award points to their peers for quality posts. One way to accomplish this is by configuring your reputation system to put a heavy weight on correct / helpful answers with little or no points awarded for quantity of posts.

Do not be afraid to adjust the weights over time when you see abuses! You can start out with points awarded for starting discussions, but if you see users posting just to get points, reconfigure it and be clear with your community that you reconfigured it and why. Sometimes communities can be good at self-policing members with bad behavior.

Also make sure that people can easily scan the posts of other users. If I see a user with a bunch of points, I should be able to go to the profile and see whether they have good, quality answers or just meaningless quantity. Community members are smart, and they will be able to tell which community members are participating in meaningful ways as long as you give them the tools to do it.

I also advise against automating rewards based on points. I might be willing to do it for something small like a t-shirt, but not for anything meaningful like moderation permissions, commit rights in open source, or anything else of value.

This is just a start. I know that other community managers probably have horror stories or great ideas about how they have made reputation systems work well. I would love to hear them here in the comments. I am also interested in hearing from people who manage different types of communities to how their perspective differs from mine (I have mostly managed developer / open source communities).

Related posts:

6 Responses to “Hot Topics in Communities: Reputation Systems”


  • Good stuff, Dawn. Thanks.

    I think it’s probably a tough balance to find. If you have/want a community of thousands, you need to be able to scale whatever system you come up with. So, it seems like there’s somewhere between a automation and manual is a sweet spot.

    I suppose if, as you suggested, it’s more about the community policing, they can help it scale.

  • I think it’d be interesting to look at how to effectively deploy reputation systems over time. For example, it might not always make sense to kick off a new community with an elaborate reputation system, but it might make sense six months in when you’re starting to have a fatigued community manager that needs some help seeing behavior trends across a site.

    I also wonder if you could speak to cross-context or portable reputation? For example, if I’m a helpful participant on one system, is there a way to reward that social capital when I join your community? Or do I have to start from scratch?

  • Chris,

    I tend to think that it is a good idea to start out with a basic reputation system that you can tweak over time (assuming that you can put it in place with little to no effort). If it comes with my community software, I would tend to turn it on with default settings or a few tweaks to the defaults. By having it in place from the start, it will be ready when the community manager needs it. Over time, it probably needs to evolve as the community becomes more mature.

    The portable reputation system is a really interesting concept especially when you think of it in the whuffie context. It would be great to come into a community with some credibility and context based on other community interactions, and likewise, it would be nice to have some way to know a little bit about new members. This becomes more difficult if you wanted to go one level deeper; for example, while I may have a fair amount of credibility in one type of community, I would be a complete n00b with little to offer in another community. I would have the same whuffie for general community participation, but I might not have the same technical reputation within that community.

    These are awesome questions, and I plan to spend more time pondering them.

    I wonder if some genius out there could figure out a way to measure this and carry it around with your OpenID or some other mechanism. I could easily see this as being part of the online identity that I would want to carry around with me.

  • Fantastic post Dawn. I really am enjoying your blog posts on community management. Thank you for taking the time and energy!

    We spent a significant amount of time pondering reputation in community at Omidyar.net. Seeing as how the founder of the site started the reputation system on ebay and created something of an evolved version for the online community of Omidyar.net (now closed)…the community was highly interested in critiquing the reputation system and brainstorming about it.

    That is not to say that there was every conclusive agreement. Some people were very frustrated with the accumulation of high scores, the process of giving points, the information available with those points, the attribution of those points, and the various meanings people attributed to those points. And yes, as one of the “top 5” rated users on the site, it is very frustrating to me not to be able to transfer that credibility and reputation to another space. I can’t take 3614 points anywhere. They won’t even get me a cup of joe.

    Arthur Brock, a web developer and meta-currencies whiz kid, repeatedly offered well thought out systems. For some of his thinking for the Omidyar context, see: http://www.omidyar.net/group/collaborative/ws/using_feedback_and_reputation_in_community/ Arthur is interested in what incents people to do things. See also: http://www.omidyar.net/group/townhall/news/42/?page=2#comment34 So if you are creating a reputation system, consider what you are trying to motivate people to do. Some ideas that came out of the discussion included a push to just have up to 5 stars or something, and that points decay if you want to see active users or active discussions.

    For example, mySpace has a reputation system: number of friends. And people game that system making friends with total strangers to increase their friend count. Razoo.com, a beta social networking site focused on social good has a complex system of kudos, thank you, inspired me, etc. There system might be too complex to have ready adaptation and consistent use across users. The Omidyar system did not have consistent use across users either though, with several users articulating openly what they gave points to and why, clearly there were huge differences. There were several measurements: points to profiles, points to comments, points to threads, points to workspaces (wikis). I gave away 21,518 points in combination to all of these things. That won’t get me coffee either.

    The key, I think, that I learned from all the discussions I read and participated in, is that the reputation system needs to clearly show what it is trying to motivate people to do and reward them for it consistently. There are many “knobs” that can be adjusted on the technical side. And it is JUST as important to have effective community practices around the reputation system as it is to have the tools to use one.

  • I’m a little late to the party but I’ll add my 2 cents.

    As part of our makeover of portlandsmallbusiness.com, we have decided to introduce a reputation system on the forums, wikis etc. So far, our best idea is to have system based on number of posts and user moderation. We would then use some sort of labeling system that would go along with the users profile/avatar in the posts. The labeling system would consist of an adjective and a noun. For example, The adjective would correlate to the number of posts and the noun would correlate to the quality of posts. To further incentivize quality posting, the top poster of the week/month/year would be promoted to the front page and receive free advertising to the small business community.

    Portability of reputation is a big problem but it’s not one that I have the time to deal with so I haven’t thought about it. What immeadiately stands out to me, is who will be the keeper of your online reputation if it is portable? I’m not sure if I want/trust a 3rd party holding the sum total of all my posts and profiles. Perhaps I could store all of this locally.

  • Hey,
    I’m Gerry.

    Just saying hello – I’m new.

Comments are currently closed.