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?

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Mary Hamilton

I'm an operations specialist, analytics nerd, recovering journalist, consultant, writer, game designer, company founder, and highly efficient pedant.

6 thoughts on “The pointsification of news comments”

  1. Good post Mary and points well made (no pun intended). The automation of it is sad to see, as it’s through reading what people are saying and learning what they like/think that the real value comes. It’d be nice to see media organisations manually assigning badges when comments are used in the paper, or special badges for when people have helped take part in a photo competition. And then there’s getting these people offline, running events like bloggers meetups, photo meetups and helping to connect those communities of interest. Many media organisations do it already around industry events e.g. education conferences – imagine if we had a readers conference?

  2. I confess mixed feelings about employing game tactics on websites, and in particular on news websites.

    On one hand, as a marketer, I understand that gamification tactics may result in all sorts of outcomes that will look favorable on a marketing metrics scorecard: increased number of registrations, increased repeat traffic, more inbound links generated to the site, and so on.

    On the other hand, still as a marketer, I know that the most valuable, long term relationships are forged through genuine engagement – which chiefly revolves around listening and responding to what you hear, and not the rewarding of badges. This may not immediately have the same impact on those same marketing metrics as gamification techniques, but will likely produce better long-term results.

    I don’t think engagement and offering rewards for, well, engaging are necessarily mutually exclusive. While the Huffington Post employs many gamification techniques (achievement of different “networker” levels, the ability to award “insight” badges to fellow commenters, and so on), there is a genuine, highly engaged community of readers that add genuine value to articles. Though one gets the sense that this community has evolved because of the mechanisms that HuffPo has provided that enable visitors to connect with one another, rather than by encouraging visitors to chase “rewards.”

    Gamificiation is certainly likely to be least effective, in either the short or long term, when it is transparently designed as a marketing ploy with more-or-less complete disregard of actual value to visitors. As you and I have both opined, this is certainly the case with recently-introduced Google News badges, which I confidently predict will die a rightful death in the near future – either by dint of Google actually pulling the plug, or a de facto death of an inducement that fails to induce.

  3. Interestingly, that’s something I was hoping to do at Citywire – run meet-ups for long-term community members, commenters and forum participants. I think many older news organisations could learn a great deal from community-focussed sites like moneysavingexpert – they are so successful not through content or through design but primarily through their communities, which are built on real people talking to each other. Game-like systems (post counts, reputation scores, badges, etc) aren’t just points in these contexts, but have value because they are symbolic of someone’s status and investment in the community. Not rewards so much as signifiers.

  4. @aaranged I think you’re right about the tension between short-term gain and sustainability – and it’s certainly not the only area where that tension exists! HuffPo is a very interesting example, and I think you’re right that the connections between readers are the key there. The ability to form tight connections is something that just doesn’t exist in most national and regional news commenting systems – it tends to be hived off into different sections of the site like forums or discussion boards, if it exists at all. That’s a shame, because it makes it much harder for communities to form around the news – it’s the ties, the trivialities, and the people that form a community after all, and if the system actively impedes or prevents people from connecting, that makes it much harder for them to feel like a coherent unit – to feel they own the space they speak in.

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