Whatever you do, don’t listen to the loudest voices in preference to the rest
You can’t avoid conflict in the community, and even splits, no matter how had you try to control who joins
Calming voices are invaluable
Controlling voices are deadly
Conversations that drift off topic and into running jokes are the sign of a good community developing – but if it goes too far, it alienates newcomers…
Read them all – they’re short, well-phrased and insightful, and every single one also applies equally well to communities offline. People are people all over, whether they’re communicating in text or in person, and the same dramas, difficulties, successes and failures play out online as they do in meatspace.
Advance warning: long post is long, and opinionated. Please, if you disagree, help me improve my thinking on this subject. And if you have more good examples or resources to share, please do.
News websites have a problem.
Well, OK, they have a lot of problems. The one I want to talk about is the comments. Generally, the standard of discourse on news websites is pretty low. It’s become almost an industry standard to have all manner of unpleasantness below the line on news stories.
Really, this isn’t limited to news comments. All over the web, people are discovering a new ability to speak without constraints, with far fewer consequences than speech acts offline, and to explore and colonise new spaces in which to converse.
Nieman Lab has a post up on “the newsonomics of gamification and civilisation“. It talks about using points and badges, earned by reading, sharing and commenting on stories, to mark people out as “being a valued member of our local news community”, and then discusses some other activities that could be “incentivised” (there’s a word that should be hunted down and destroyed by the @guardianstyle team) with the application of points and badges.
Honestly, articles like this make me tremendously sad. Points and badges are not the same thing as long-term engagement or monetisation, as Foursquare has already amply demonstrated. Gamified activities are not the same thing as play. And if all we have to offer our readers in return for their actions are empty, meaningless “rewards” instead of genuine value, they will – long term – leave. I’ve talked before about the overjustification effect – it applies particularly to news organisations, where we want people to value the activities they do on our websites because they are genuinely enjoyable, useful, interesting, engaging, in their own rights. Blogging, commenting, discussing, sharing, reading, viewing – these things should not be chores. (And “paying contributors with points” is not paying contributors at all, and is intellectually dishonest as well as potentially exploitative.) As Kathy Sierra says in the comments:
I say “may” because the potential demotivating side effects of extrinsic rewards do not apply to areas that have no intrinsically rewarding aspect. In other words, using extrinsic rewards to help me get through something tedious, rote, mundane, painful, etc. — things I would never ordinarily find pleasurable *without* the rewards — is an excellent use of gamification with mostly all upside. But to use gamification in areas like education, civic engagement, or even just participating on a website or forum, we should proceed with extreme caution and thought. Because after the short-term spike in engagement, we may create a permanent motivation deficit. We may end up worse than we were before.
I always feel like articles like this miss the point somewhat. By focussing on gamification and assuming that’s all there is to game dynamics, news organisations are genuinely missing out on real opportunities to innovatively use games for journalism. Indie games companies are already doing this sort of thing. Things like Sweatshop, the manyWikileaksgames, the Osama bin Laden Counter Strike map, and innovative data journalism experiments in Minecraft (this year’s Young Rewired State best in show winners) – they all have problems, but they all exist, and this field will get larger as game design tools are simplified and as more people have greater access to the tools for digital game creation. News organisations risk missing the boat.
But the most depressing thing is that by taking to automated systems to assign value, news organisations miss out on opportunities to actually talk to people, to build genuine community. Some gamification systems can work, especially for getting people to do things they don’t already want to do, but automating away reader interaction seems a little like an admission that a news organisation sees little intrinsic value in its readers comments, and expects its readers to comment out of duty or out of competitiveness rather than desire.
If people appreciate the community, feel they belong and want to contribute, why do you need to give them points? If people like your content and want to share it, why would points make a difference? Conversely, if they don’t, aren’t you just incentivising spam? If people feel their news tips are valued and appreciated, why would points make a difference to that? If you want your users to do something, why is gamification the answer? Surely, changing the activity into something they actually want to do would be a better, more effective option?
So Independent columnist Johann Hari has been caught out passing off quotes from other interviews as his own – and so far he’s defended the practice, claiming it’s “common” and suggesting he’s doing the readers a favour by choosing the clearest possible version of his subject’s ideas.
A lot of journalists and media folk, myself included, have chipped in on this one, but at the end of the day our views are not all that important. It’s Hari’s readers who have been deceived, they who will judge him, and they who will ultimately be the arbiters of whether his deception is acceptable or not.
It’s about trust. Has he lost it? Will his readers still trust him to report accurately, or will they be worried now that if he can deceive them about what was said to whom at what time, he can also deceive them about other things? Or does the end justify the means? Is it OK as long as he writes well and keeps doing important work?
Hari himself says: “My test for journalism is always – would the readers mind you did this, or prefer it?” That’s my question too. Would his readers really prefer pastiches to accurate quotes? Or would they rather he linked to his sources?
Hear me out. This is the culmination of quite a long period of mashing obscure concepts into my brain and seeing what sticks. If it doesn’t make sense, please rip it apart in the comments.
Sim Social is a massive multi-user dungeon (MUD) about building an identity, which you do by making “friends”, “sharing” digital artefacts (photos, videos, links, text), and “liking” things – objects, concepts, individuals, brands, the aforementioned digital artefacts. It’s played in real time with real people, and the level to which you decide to play yourself or a character is entirely up to you.
It functions, in a way, like old-school text adventure games. At a basic level, text games let the player use verb noun combinations – “get sword”, “kill snake”, “drink potion” – to act on the game world and progress the game. The verbs involved tend to be very limited and to have strictly defined fields of action. So for instance “get” is a one-time-only action which only works on a particular class of object. It changes the status of that object from being in the game world to being in the player’s inventory, and it opens up the possibility of further actions – “get sword” leads to “use sword”, or in slightly more sophisticated games, “kill snake with sword”.
“Get sword” and “friend Mary” function in fascinatingly similar ways. From your perspective, “Mary” is lying around in the game space – you might come across her through both interacting with certain things (like being in the same room of the MUD at the same time) or you might go into the game specifically looking for “Mary” because you know that she’s there and you want her to be part of your experience on Sim Social. So you find her, and you friend her, and now she’s in your inventory and you can do other things with her, like tag her in photos or get access to her status updates.
This is not to imply, of course, that people are things. But the way Facebook’s interaction is set up – the rules it imposes on the simulation – does imply certain things about the game world.
So Facebook (as a text) argues, increasingly with the Like button takeover of Share functions, that if I “like” or “recommend” something (one-directional relationships, indistinguishable from each other, in which ambiguity cannot be expressed) then I must also want to “share” it. And, with the new comment plugin, it gives site owners the opportunity to argue that if I comment on their work I must also “share” it with all my “friends”; that I must be non-anonymous; that I must want to be notified of responses.
By casting a certain interaction in the metaphorical field of “friendship”, and by modelling the processes of “being friends” in a certain way, Facebook (as a game, as a text) makes an argument about socialisation and about relationships in the real world. So does Twitter. So do most social apps.
Facebook, in particular, lays claim to metaphors of relationship, interest and appreciation through the verbs it uses to describe and interact within the game world; it makes wider arguments about identity and privacy too. It simulates building relationships on a deeper level than SimCity simulates city-building, sure, but both exist on a continuum where complex social processes are modelled with certain assumptions built in.
Mark Sample talks about close-reading SimCity, looking at the rhetoric of its models, and unpacking the underlying assumptions behind the simplistic assertion that tax increases cause crime. I’d like to do that with Facebook, if the code was more open, but there are plenty of open assumptions to unpack – Is “liking” something the same thing as “recommending” it? What’s a “friend”? Can identities fluctuate? Facebook has an opinion on these things.
Sherry Turkle tells us about a 13 year old SimCity player who told her about the “Top Ten Rules of SimCity.” One of those rules was that “raising taxes leads to riots.” Now, if the adolescent had simply understood this as a rule in the model, it would be fine, but Turkle insists that the adolescent did not understand that the simulation was a simplification. Turkle claims that this adolescent had uncritically extrapolated a set of rules she used to understand society from SimCity. The claim is that the 13 year old did not understand the game as a model or a toy but instead saw it as a kind of direct representation of the world. In a world increasingly dependent on simulation as basis of knowledge it is important for us to begin to become literate.
Interesting presentation by Sebastian Deterding looking at what user experience designers can learn from game design.
Although news orgs face very different challenges from UX designers, the basic messages about shallow vs deep engagement, using multiple interacting points/currencies and measuring achievement, effort and attainment in a meaningful way are very relevant. Take a look:
It’s interesting to look at the Huffington Post’scommunity moderation badges in terms of this presentation. My gut instinct is that they fall, along with Foursquare, into a category of too simplistic game-like systems (“Just Add Points”) that don’t actually tap into the power and fun of learning that is one of the fundamental building blocks of good game design.
It’s also worth checking out this post on rescuing princesses at the Lost Garden. If you click through to the slides (PDF) there’s a thoughtful discussion of the differences between app and game design, and a very useful breakdown of STARS atoms – essentially, small chunks that introduce players/users to new skills, let them discover how to use them, and ensure they have mastered them.
Between them, these two posts and the thoughts behind them make a mockery of the idea of game mechanics as simple point systems you can pop atop pre-designed apps or comment systems or whatever it is you’re already doing. You have to design with exploratory learning in mind, with a learning curve that doesn’t flatten out horizontally or vertically and with end goals and nested goals to maintain engagement.
I wonder how the Guardian’s crowdsourced investigation into MPs’ expenses would have gone if they’d added this sort of rich game-led design? As well as giving long-term and short-term goals/rewards (like Twitter translator levels, perhaps) with status bars to show progress, perhaps they could have rewarded people who found something of real import with a status bump, or added exploratory learning elements by advancing users towards the goal of signing off on things other people had flagged as interesting. Or teaching basic maths, or collating data into a wiki-style “what does my MP spend” database, or encouraging/letting users learn to create their own visualisations of the data. Hard to say how well or whether that would have worked, but it’s easy to see wider possibilities in projects like that.
There’s a cake shop next door, a giant hamster over the road and soldiers are fighting zombies on the roof. MARY HAMILTON welcomes you to the new-look Evening News.
Breaking news: the postman has delivered a letter.
That’s how most of the news comes in to the Home Sweet Home offices of the Evening News. It’s delivered by a tall man in short trousers, a flat cap and socks, who leaves the envelopes leaning up against the front canopy of the 20cm cardboard building.
I built the office myself, from flat-pack cutout to fully-fledged busy office building complete with newspaper bundles and Plasticene journalists, sharing glue, card and colouring pens with neighbours and strangers.
I even recreated Bernard Meadows’ eyecatching bronze ball sculptures, carefully rolling and squeezing yellow moulding clay and poking it gingerly with a pencil, before giving the rest of my clay to an excited six-year-old who wanted to make bees for her garden.
It is part of a performance – or perhaps an exhibition – called Home Sweet Home, the brainchild of Goldsmiths graduates Abigail Conway and Lucy Hayhoe, in which participants build their own city from flat-pack parts and then experience its evolution as it fills with people playing along.
Watching the tiny town sprout from a black and white canvas into a riot of colour in the extravagant surroundings of Blackfriars Hall was both surreal and sublime, as bizarre buildings and peculiar personalities developed thanks to the imagination of neighbours.
But when the letters began to arrive the town took on a new and magical dimension, with stories, greetings, and feats of collective imagination all emerging thanks to the postal service and the presenters at the radio station.
My letter reads: “Dear Editor, An escaped swan ate my shoes! Please put it in your newspaper! Yours, Joz Norris, No. 188”.
Immediately I spring into action. I post a breaking news update on the billboard outside the office – crafted from matchsticks, card and successive layers of paper posters – and dash off a return letter asking for more detail about the attack.
Over time, petitions spring up on the community notice board. A campaign to build a public swimming pool gathers pace. Disgruntled residents try to force an election. A little girl who runs a flower shop donates a sponge-and-cocktail-stick floral display to my office.
A small zombie outbreak spreads and threatens other city properties, so the Evening News drafts in a local militia to fight them off. Other businesses welcome the zombies, selling them vintage clothes and inviting them in to a night club.
And I get another letter from Joz saying that he’s bought another pair of Doc Martens but he doesn’t think he’ll be able to look a swan in the eye ever again.
The whole experience is a testament to the power of play. Adults and children alike tap into the storytelling possibilities of the town, expressing their personalities through their houses and opening them up as the community evolves around them.
While some people come along, build houses and leave, those who stay build stories around their houses, and the whole community evolves and changes as the project progresses.
A giant hamster in the back garden of one house is asked to join the Spiegeltent as a performer. A few hours later he has moved to the circus with signs advertising his upcoming performances.
I spend the weekend doing what journalists do: asking questions, writing down stories, monitoring the notice board and answering letters, preparing for a burst of activity on Sunday night as I put the Home Sweet Home edition of the Evening News together.
The following day, when I return to Blackfriars Hall with a stack of miniature newspapers under my arm, the Spiegeltent has disappeared, replaced by a giant hamster run with tunnels, hoops and a swimming pool.
I arrive at the office to discover someone has stuck a giant red ball to my door, in imitation of the large inflatable ball currently touring Norwich as part of the Norfolk and Norwich Festival. They are planted on the church, the fire station and the city hall, too.
For a short time this miniature cardboard community has been incredibly real. It has had action, politics, feuds, joy, fear and anger, and the people who created it have told hundreds of tiny stories that were, for a while, incredibly important, as they literally changed the way their city was constructed.
As the houses were dismantled and returned to their owners, I felt deeply privileged to have been present at the birth and the death of Norwich’s smallest suburb, and to have been able to tell just a few of the stories the residents created.
A version of this article and its accompanying miniature newspaper
were originally published in the Evening News