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: