Can gamification help solve the online anonymity problem?

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There’s been a lot written recently about the issue of online anonymity, and in particular how Google believes that a “real names” policy is necessary so that the Google+ network maintains a certain tone and level of trust. We’ve talked at GigaOM about ways in which Google could allow anonymity (or pseudonymity) and still maintain a healthy community, but media analyst Ken Doctor has put his finger on another option — one that some news outlets are experimenting with — and that’s “gamification,” or rewards for reader behavior and engagement. If Google is serious about creating an actual community on Google+, it’s an idea worth thinking about.

Despite a torrent of criticism from users and anonymity advocates such as sociologist and Microsoft researcher Danah Boyd — who argues that Google’s real-name policy is “an abuse of power” in favor of a privileged few — the search giant seems determined not to budge on its requirement. In a recent interview in Edinburgh, Google chairman and former CEO Eric Schmidt argued that the Internet as a whole would be better off if real names were the norm, and also made what appeared to be a case for Google+ becoming an “identity service” that the company could build other services upon.

As we’ve argued in the past, there are substantial benefits to allowing anonymity or what some call “persistent pseudonyms,” including the fact that this enables those with unpopular or even politically dangerous views to use such networks, as NPR journalist Andy Carvin notes in a recent interview about his use of Twitter and Facebook. But whenever the issue of anonymity comes up, advocates say that anonymous comments allow trolling, flame-wars and other offensive behavior — an argument Financial Times columnist John Gapper made a few days ago in defending Google’s real-name policy.

Gamification as a way to build engagement

Could “gamification” help solve this problem? The concept has gotten its own share of criticism over the past year or so, since it has become a trendy buzzword and a popular idea with marketing agencies — and in many cases, simply adding badges to an existing service doesn’t really accomplish much. But as Ken Doctor notes in a post about how some news sites are using a gamification-style approach to improve reader comments, the idea has some merit when it is part of a broader outreach program. Says Doctor:

The goal here isn’t simply to build core customers. It’s to bring greater civility and perspective — what Lyons calls “insight” — to the site. Readers now can mark others’ comments as “insightful,” resulting, over time, in higher ranking of commenters the community seems to value.

The site Doctor describes (Redding.com, run by the newspaper in Redding, Calif.) isn’t the only news outlet to experiment with reader badges and other reward programs as a way of influencing behavior: the Huffington Post launched reader badges last year, and although it hasn’t released any specific numbers about the effect on traffic or comments, the site’s former social-media editor Adam Clarke Estes told me the program was seen as a success both in terms of traffic and its impact on behavior.

It’s not so much that badges or other rewards — Slashdot, a pioneering geek community, has long used “karma points” as a way of rewarding users and selecting moderators — cure bad behavior, or prevent trolls from coming to a site. What they do instead is make it easier to distinguish between what Slashdot calls “anonymous cowards” and those who have gained the trust of the community. Over time, it becomes obvious (theoretically) who is worth listening to and who isn’t (Jeff Sonderman at Poynter has also written about the advantages of reader badges for news sites).

Levelling up is an investment users make

When I tried to describe this idea to a marketing person at the newspaper I used to work for, I had a hard time getting it across — until her young colleague said “you mean readers could level up, just like in World of Warcraft!” And he was right: The whole concept of “gamification,” whether it involves badges or points or other features (extra powers as a commenter, added profile enhancements, etc.) is designed as an incentive for engagement, just as the ability to add new armor or spells is in World of Warcraft.

That’s not to say that “griefing” or other kinds of bad behavior don’t occur in online games or other communities with game-style rewards. But the odds are somewhat lower, simply because users don’t want to jeopardize their standing in that community. I remember a friend agonizing over quitting World of Warcraft because he had spent thousands of hours getting his avatar to a certain level of experience — it was a huge investment, and he would have done anything not to endanger that, even though his real name didn’t appear anywhere on his gamer profile.

There are some key differences between World of Warcraft and newspaper comment sections, of course, and between online games and what Google is trying to create with Google+ (which may just be a way to connect people to other Google services and improve search results, rather than creating a real community). No one pays to be a member of either a newspaper comment section or Google+, and not many spend thousands of hours in these communities the way they do with WoW.

But Google and other companies still might be able to take advantage of those kinds of incentives, as Redding.com is with its experimental program. Instead of simply trying to ban or exclude anyone who doesn’t want to use a real name, as Google is doing with Google+, why not try to design a system that rewards the type of behavior you want to see, and lets the users of that community decide who they wish to pay attention to?

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Torley

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