If you don’t want to talk to people, turn your comments off

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.

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The pointsification of news comments

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 many Wikileaks games, 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?

Braindump: just add points

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’s community 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.

/end braindump