Designing incentives for collaborative groups

The raw material for Designing Social Interfaces does a lovely job at outlining a range of patterns to incent participation for groups. The patterns reflects a powerful insight – communities vary in their level of competitiveness, and patterns should be used appropriately for the level of competitiveness in the community. “Haphazardly introducing competitive incentives into non-competitive contexts can create problems and may cause a schism within the community.”

Game communities have been leaders in using leaderboards ranking, named and numbered levels, and related techniques to incent participation by triggering the desire to beat the other guy. But for some people these techniques are disincentives: “In user-testing, we’ve seen some strong reactions to Numbered Levels from folks who make associations with ‘being graded’ or assessed. Others noted that numbers just “seem impersonal and kinda cold.”

However, techniques for more collaborative communities have been less well described. This post sketches a few I’ve observed. Reflecting on these patterns, they seem to fall into three groups:
* praise contribution
* make opportunities for participation visible
* make progress toward shared goals visible

Praise contribution

One pattern already described in the manuscript that can be used in a more cooperative setting is collectable acheivement. People can earn badges for completing tasks and post them to their page as marks of personal acheivement. There are also “gift” badges that can be given to others for “those who’ve distinguished themselves in some way: perhaps they’ve excelled at one particular skill that the community values; perhaps they are official representatives for the community or an affiliated organization; perhaps they have volunteered to be a helpful resource for others in the community. ”

On, you can give someone else “props” for sharing a good song. Props give the receiver credit to use with others. This is a non-competitive form of Karma points – Karma points show appreciation and make it easy to compare people’s relative karma.

Improvisational sharing

Shared collections
A common collaborative pattern is the creation of a shared collection. Using a tags to collect material, a group to define contributors, or both, people define something to collect. On Flickr, for example, there are groups that collect pictures of Japanese bento boxes, makes models and serial numbers of airplanes, photos with certain color combinations. On Twitter in recent weeks, people have been sharing links to country/americana songs under the #twangthursday tag.

All that’s needed for this pattern to take hold is the ability to assemble content and people with a tag the group defines, to see the collection, and see new items.

Make opportunities for contribution visible

Gardening tools
In a large collaborative project such as a wiki, gardening tools reveal content that needs to be worked on; pages that are un-linked or un-tagged, content areas that need to be filled in and improved, new contributions that need review. These tools can be used with and without explicit rewards – one principle of “cognitive surplus” communities is that people will contribute and be creative if given a chance – simply making it easy for someone to see what needs to be done and do it is a motivator.

One example is the WikiHow editor’s toolbar which allows WikiHow editors to view edits that need review on new pages, featured pages, and more.

Visible progress toward shared goals

Fundraising widgets
To raise money for a cause, the person or group wanting to raise the money provides widgets that others can embed in their own sites. The widgets allow viewers to donate, and see progress toward the shared fundraising goal.

Information radiators
An Information radiator is a pattern described by agile software development proponent Alistair Cockburn. This is a shared bulletin board with information on the state of a shared project. For example, the “information radiator” for the Socialtext agile development process shows a burndown chart of completed stories for the iteration, whether there are failing automated tests, and the state of stories in progress. The metrics displayed in the radiator reflect items the team wants to track or improve; as the problems to solve change, the metrics may change.

There are probably many more patterns, and ways to organize them too. I’m going to put this to others to help with the brainstorming.

Credit to Peter Kaminski for ideas on Flickr photo sharing as a nomic game.

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